By BEAU EASTES
BEND, Ore. —
Ryan Gray had every reason to believe a gold buckle was within his grasp last year.
The 27-year-old cowboy from Cheney, Wash., was having the best rodeo season of his life in 2010, finishing the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) regular season first in the bareback world standings with $159,024 in winnings, more than $22,000 ahead of his closest competitor.
Gray won or was the co-champion at 12 rodeos last year, which included a $55,350 payday at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a $19,978 check at the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Pocatello, Idaho.
A solid performance in December at the season-ending National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas and Gray would have been in contention for his first world title.
But then tragedy struck.
In the second round of the NFR, Gray's shot at the 2010 world bareback championship was literally crushed in a split second.
After riding Golden Dream, a horse he estimates weighed more than 1,200 pounds, Gray's right hand hung in the rigging for a brief moment as he was bucked off, throwing the rest of his body directly under Golden Dream.
The horse's back right hoof landed square in the middle of Gray's back before sliding down the right side of his body.
"Apparently there's a small part of your liver that's not covered by your rib cage there," says Gray, who was scheduled to ride Saturday night during the evening performance at the Sisters Rodeo, recalling the accident. "That's where she stepped on me as I was getting off. I hit the ground and at the same time, `Wham!,' all of her weight was on me."
A shocked crowd at the Thomas & Mack Arena watched as Gray was rushed to the hospital.
"I knew almost immediately something was wrong," says Gray, who suffered a lacerated liver from the accident. "I'd never really experienced anything like that, an injury of that degree of seriousness. ... It was a weird, painful type of pain I couldn't really describe. I knew something was going on internally."
In a flash, Gray's chance at the world title was gone. (Bobby Mote, of Culver, one of Gray's close friends and traveling partners, went on to win the bareback, his fourth world championship.)
Gray, a Texas Tech University grad who finished sixth in the world in 2009 and fourth in 2008, spent 3 1/2 days in the hospital's intensive care unit. Doctors told him he would need three to six months to recover.
"It was difficult to sit back and watch the rest of the (10-day rodeo) go by knowing I wasn't going to be able to compete," Gray says. "But at the same time I'm thankful to walk away with my life. I knew I'd be healthy again and I could still ride again. The fact is, (the accident) could have been a lot worse."
After three months of rest and recovery - "I was going out of my skin not to go insane," Gray says - the Laramie, Wyo., native was cleared by his doctors to compete in his first rodeo of 2011, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, where he won more than $50,000 the previous year.
His comeback was under way - briefly.
"The second horse I got on I separated a rib," Gray says. "I tried to get on a couple more and it got worse."
Determined to let his rib heal, Gray just recently got back in the saddle. He earned $199 last week at the Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo in Silver City, N.M., his first PRCA check of the season.
While the current bareback world standings leader, Tilden Hooper, has won $53,673 to date this year, Gray hoped to use Saturday's rodeo in Sisters and Sunday's Livermore (Calif.) Rodeo as a springboard for the rest of the year.
"Everything's possible," says Gray, who has qualified for the past six NFRs and fully expects to make a seventh this December. "The thing about the summertime is there's so much money to be won in a short amount of time. Usually we've only gone to 15 rodeos by the time June starts. There's over 50 rodeos between now and the end of September."
"It's a tough deal," says Mote about Gray's road to recovery. "But he's tough, obviously. He's working at it - and he's finally back and healthy."