One year ago yesterday, the rodeo world lost a very talented cowboy.
On January 9, 2017, Ty Pozzobon took his own life. The bull rider was suffering from depression, and had received multiple brain injuries during his career resulting in the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), found postmortem in Pozzobon’s brain.
Pozzobon was a star in the bull riding world — the 2016 PBR Canada champion, a three-time Canadian Finals Rodeo qualifier, and a four-time PBR World Finals qualifier. He also finished the 2016 PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals in Las Vegas in the No. 4 spot.
Brain health has been widely discussed in the year since the cowboy’s passing, and in just 365 days his death has left an impact in the arena and in the lives of the people who knew him.
Brain Trauma, CTE, & Mental Health
CTE, a degenerative brain disease affecting those with repeated brain trauma, is often found in NFL players and war veterans — and now a rodeo athlete.
After Pozzobon’s passing, his family quickly made the decision to donate his brain to study. Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine subsequently discovered that the cowboy had in fact been suffering from CTE. Through his many concussions, Pozzobon had damaged his frontal lobe — the part of the brain responsible for emotional expression, decision making, memory, and judgement.
After Pozzobon’s passing, competitors have found a friendly face in fellow bull rider and long-time friend Tanner Girletz, who noted the increased frequency of openness in the athletic community.
“It's been a full year of just talking with guys," said Girletz, the 2006 Canadian bull riding champion. "Just the other day again, another guy came out and said he was struggling with some anxiety issues. It’s crazy the people that are actually talking about it now."
Pozzobon’s passing, according to Girletz, has opened the doors of communication — encouraging those suffering either to seek medical attention or to address matters with family and friends.
The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) association already had a concussion protocol in place, but has since updated its policies including physical and mental health resources, education on brain injuries, and counseling for substance abuse, grief, and suicide intervention.
Pozzobon’s mother, Leanne, thinks these resources can help others who may be struggling.
“If I had only had those resources a year ago, but because of Ty those resources are there for others to find help immediately,” she said. “I was in a panic days before his passing when I knew he wasn’t well and I couldn’t find help that we needed. I knew how serious he was and didn’t know what to do. That haunts me to this day.”
Injury Care & Time Off
In a sport in which competitors don’t get paid unless they win, many athletes have continued to compete through injuries without allowing their bodies the proper time to heal. The lack of awareness about concussions and their long-term effects also meant those injuries in particular were often shrugged off and treated as minor issues.
"It’s crazy the people that are actually talking about it now."
But the impact of Pozzobon’s passing on that awareness meant busier sports medicine teams during the 2017 rodeo season — something Brandon Thome, vice president of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team, can attest to.
“Since the tragic passing of Ty, I have seen the mindset change drastically when it comes to competing with concussions,” Thome said. “For the most part, competitors are more aware of when they should get evaluated and say something, as well as they are looking out for each other when it comes to concussions.”
Started with the mission to "to protect and support the health and well-being of rodeo competitors inside and outside the arena,” the Ty Pozzobon Foundation has raised funds allowing sports medicine teams to attend 165 performances in 2017, up from 120 performances the year before.
Sports medicine teams do a great job of patching up the normal minor injuries that occur every day so you can get back out there and compete, but with the level of competition the sport sees today, competing with a more major injury just doesn’t pencil out says Thome.
“In the past (rodeo athletes) would compete no matter what,” Thome said. “Injuries got worse until you couldn't get on anymore, and likely nobody really made any money. Now competitors are starting to realize that if they are not able to compete at 100 percent, it is getting really hard to win money and thus they need to take the time to heal up and get to a point where they can compete at the top of their game.”
The Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team is currently working on its own concussion protocol, but the hurdle of the “right to work” still remains in a sport that not only requires athletes to pay to play, but only rewards them if they win.
Remembering To #LiveLikeTy
Emotions were high for fans and competitors at the 2017 Canadian Finals Rodeo and PBR Global Cup on November 9 in Edmonton, Alberta; the day would have been Pozzobon’s 26th birthday.
“That whole day was kind of an eerie, crazy day,” said Girletz, who won the round at the CFR that night with an 86.5-point ride.
“To win the round on Ty’s birthday — that buckle, that night at the Coliseum — that means more than my gold buckle (for a Canadian championship) I won in 2006.”
Girletz also talked about the commonplace reminders those close to Pozzobon see as signs that Pozzobon is watching over them.
“There was a lady that said if you see a bald eagle flying around — that was Ty’s favourite bird — he’ll be flying around,” Girletz said. “I talked to Ty’s wife Jayd (who lives in Texas) here a few weeks ago, and there’s not very many bald eagles in Texas and she’s got two of them hanging out at her place right now.”
In the past year there has been a major step forward in brain trauma and CTE awareness and research, better communication among rodeo competitors, and a greater understanding of the severity of brain injuries and the need for time off.
Time will tell how these steps will affect the world of rodeo long-term. In the meantime, those who were close to Pozzobon want everyone to remember to #LiveLikeTy, a social media signature that has grown popular since the bull rider passed away.
“[Ty was] compassionate, wild, and fearless," Girletz said. "He loved what he did, he loved bull riding, and his bulls and cows. I think the biggest thing to remember with Ty was his passion, and just the guy he was. He’d never walk by you on the street without saying hi and taking the time to make sure you were doing alright.”