By Joseph T. O’Connor
Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – A dust devil rose from the newly groomed arena in Big Sky Town Center. Bleachers were filled to capacity, the crowd standing still; bulls were silent in their pens; riders, hats over hearts, stood in a semicircle in the dirt, waiting.

A thick and ominous thunderhead made its way east from Lone Mountain on the first night of the fourth annual Big Sky Professional Bull Riders event. But a squall wasn’t on the agenda for this two-night outdoor affair, which was last summer named PBR’s Touring Pro Division Event of the Year.

From the east, a helicopter appeared over the Gallatin Range. The electricity in the air was palpable. Then the silence broke. The Big Sky PBR was back.

As Krista Barnett of Pinky and the Floyd belted an unforgettable version of “The Start-Spangled Banner,” the crowd watched Rocky Mountain Rotors’ Robinson R-44 Raven II helicopter circle the arena with a 20-by-30-foot American flag suspended from a longline.

Cord McCoy, former professional bull rider and Big Sky PBR ambassador, brought the mic to the center of the electrified arena and took in the sold-out crowd. “I’ve been around the world three times,” he said, referring to his trio of “The Amazing Race” appearances on CBS. “But Big Sky is the place to be tonight!”

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Over two rowdy nights, July 30-31, bull riders from around the world joined more than 5,000 spectators from around the nation, converging in a field of sage in Big Sky Town Center.

The sold-out event brought PBR Chairman and CEO Jim Haworth to Big Sky for the second year in a row. “You won’t find a better setting anywhere in the world than right here in Big Sky,” Haworth told the crowd as he surveyed the full house before the bull riding began. “I think we’re going to have to build a bigger arena.”

Chad Berger, of Chad Berger Bucking Bulls in Mandan, N.D., brought 111 of his meanest, rowdiest bulls to square off against some of the top riders in the world. Behind the chutes, cowboys were preparing in their own way.

Jory “Wild Man” Markiss of Missoula paced and thumped his chest; Brazil’s Luis Blanco sat silent and focused; Gage Gay wrapped athletic tape around his gloved right wrist and applied rosin to the bull rope.

“I stretch and stay warm and really focus on my breathing,” said Nathan Schaper of Grassy Butte, N.D. “You try to keep winning out of your head when you’re out there.”

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At 6 p.m. on both evenings, a Calcutta auction was held under the Golden Buckle tent. Auctioneer and manager at North Dakota’s Herreid Livestock Market J.R. Scott held court, rattling off the eight teams of riders, and the bidders did not disappoint.

In total, the Calcutta raised $54,000, half of the proceeds split between the winners, and half benefitting the nonprofits Big Sky Community Corp. and Yellowstone Park Foundation.

“It’s one of our biggest fundraisers of the year,” said BSCC Executive Director Jessie Wiese. “It’s so generous for [event sponsors] to give us some of the proceeds from the Calcutta, and we’re inspired that the community continues to see the importance of parks and trails in the area.”

Scarfing the last of their dinner – catered by The Corral the first night and the Yellowstone Club on night two – Golden Buckle ticket holders took their seats in the bleachers across from general admission attendees, ready for action.

Entertainer Flint Rasmussen ribbed the crowd, referring to G.A. ticketholders as the “beer and whiskey crowd,” and Golden Buckle spectators as the “Merlot crowd.” But as the event wore on, the groups found a collective voice, egged on by the lively Rasmussen.

For one fan in particular, the event was a dream come true. Eight-year-old Connor Casillas sat in his wheelchair in the northwest corner of the arena with his grandparents, taking in every second of the show, dressed in a PBR T-shirt and chaps signed by the bull riders.

“Every time he comes over [to our house] we watch bull riding,” said Kathy Connors, who made the trip to Big Sky from Helena with grandson Casillas and husband Mick Waterman. “He kind of rules the roost.”

It was Casillas’ second PBR event – the first coming in Billings in April through the Make-A-Wish Foundation – but his cerebral palsy, which left him paraplegic since birth, hasn’t slowed him down.

“We knew the only thing Connor actually chose by himself was bull riding,” Connors said. “I believe that seeing the PBR cowboys he’s so familiar with on TV is such a thrill for him.”

The soon-to-be third grader who leads the Pledge of Allegiance for his class at Smith School in Helena, conveys feelings with gestures and facial expressions: Baring his teeth means “no;” a smile and eye contact indicates “yes;” his arms raise to show excitement.

When McCoy ambled over to the boy during the opening ceremony, Casillas raised his arms to the sky.

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The gate exploded during the final round on night two, with rider Nathan Schaper atop the savage bull named Bison Nation. Whirling and bucking, the 1,500-pound animal tried desperately to shake the cowboy, but to no avail.

Schaper, who finished in eighth place at the 2013 Big Sky PBR, won this year’s event by amassing 253.5 points, despite a bull stepping on his leg and breaking it in February. He was the only cowboy to ride all three bulls this year.

Forty-two cowboys from as far as Brazil, Spain and Australia joined Montana cowboys and other U.S. riders to participate in the Big Sky event. And they’re as hard as nails, according to McCoy.

“These guys don’t come from Brazil to get thrown off,” said McCoy, who had four PBR World Finals appearances before retiring in October 2013. “These guys won’t let go until their head hits the ground.”

Schaper was awarded nearly $10,000 in prize money, the coveted “Sky Ride” trophy bronze by artist Sandy Epstein, and a Gibson J-15 Dreadnought acoustic guitar from Music Villa in Bozeman.

“I knew I had to ride three [bulls] to win,” said Schaper, 23, after the awards presentation. “It’s amazing to win this event here [in Big Sky]. The scenery and the fans were awesome. That’s why we voted it [2013] event of the year.”

Schaper was followed by second-place rider Scottie Knapp of Albuquerque, N.M.; Cody Schneider from Canyon, Texas in third; and Staley, N.C.’s Gage Gay in fourth place.

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On the arena floor at the end of night two, Schaper and Mutton Bustin’ winner Kelsey Ladd received congratulations and posed for photos with event sponsors and fans.

Big Sky PBR producers Eric Ladd of the Outlaw Partners (publisher of this newspaper), Jim Murphy with Continental Construction, as well as Andy and Jacey Watson of Freestone Productions met with spectators and cowboys alike before Big Sky’s own Bottom of the Barrel took the Cooper Tire stage for its free honky-tonk rock performance.

“The highlight of the PBR for me each year is to see it grow and enthusiastically embraced by the community and sponsors,” Murphy said. “It’s a highlight of the summer in Big Sky.”

Ladd took it a step further, speaking to the ideology of the Big Sky PBR and how it’s representative of Western culture. “Mountain towns become known for certain events and festivals, and the PBR event has the makings to be that,” he said. “We’d like to have more seating and potentially expand this to 3-4 day festival event.”

Determination defines bull riding. Whether a rider beats his chest, prays or sits alone quiet and focused, true grit is key. When bull and rider crash through the gate, the 8 seconds begin – 8 seconds to buck him off, 8 seconds to hold on.

In 8-second increments during the Big Sky PBR, fans felt the elation of a ride, the pain of the dirt and the thrill that only bull riding can bring. See you next year.