“Don’t let your past define you.”
A common phrase but what is uncommon is someone that follows it so well.
Brady Cervantes spent almost 10 years as a sniper in the Marine Corps, living through explosions during his tours in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and now suffering from the lasting symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) due to those explosions. But through the pain, the memory loss, and the trauma that goes along with the job, he returned and went right back to the place he left when he went to fight for his country, the arena.
Read the raw, unedited interview with Cervantes about his new beginning in the PBR’s Touring Pro Division.
Interview conducted by FloRodeo's Gabrielle Jaffee
FloRodeo: Tell me about your military background and how did you come to be a bull rider?
Brady Cervantes: My name is Brady Cervantes. People know me as “Totonka,” that was a nickname given to me by a Seal buddy. That’s like bison or buffalo or bull in Sioux language. I’m not even Sioux, but I’m Apache. But it’s just… it was just kind of a joke between me and a good friend who’s no longer with us.
I spent almost a decade in the Marine Corps as a Scout Sniper working with certain specialized units. Multiple times to Iraq, multiple times to Afghanistan, a few deployments to certain places other than those two. Before I went into the Marine Corps, I was riding bulls for my high school and that’s how I got into it. I tried to ride a little bit when I was in the Marine Corps, but I got to a point where they were like, “Hey, you either need to ride or fight. We’re putting a lot of money into your training.” There’s some jobs in the military where you can do both, but, you know, it’s quite a bit of money going into learning how to be who I was there in the military.
Upon getting out — I had planned on doing 20 [years], but, going through, you know, five explosions, big ones, and other typical stuff that happens in combat, they were like, “Hey, you’ve done your time, we really don’t need you anymore.” And plus, the drawback with the budget cuts going on from 2012 to 2015 with Obama was going on at the same time. So, they cut a lot of us out.
I was kind of lost. I didn’t really know what to do. I had a lot of dark days for about four years until I took a job on a ranch and I just started riding practice bulls. Kind of like how guys play softball every Thursday night, I go and ride practice bulls. And then one thing led to another and then over the span of about six months, I just kept at it. Cutting weight, getting back to being an athlete, I guess.
I found myself riding in the PBR Touring Pro. Dealing with that upon dealing with the VA and having TBI testing from the explosions and everything like that kind of took me out for a little bit after I started riding in the PBR.
Yeah, I know people say, “Hey, you’ve got TBI… You’ve been through all this stuff. Why ride bulls?”
Honestly, it gave me that sense of drive and that sense of purpose going from an elite group in the military to going to an elite group in the western sports world. Not many people do it. A lot of people talk about it, but those that can do it are very few and far between. When I’m around those guys or even around folks like yourself that understand it, it really helps and it’s almost therapeutic. I don’t just do it for that, you know, I want to go big or go home, so that’s where I’m at in life.
Having had a TBI, how has that affected you when you ride? Do you think about it? Obviously, everyone knows the story of Ty Pozzobon. How did that affect you? Have you been in that sort of a place?
Dealing with TBI and PTSD and whatever else you want to call it, getting diagnosed with all that kind of stuff was a real kind of a gut punch. If you let it control you, it will. If you stand up to it, respect it, and help yourself and not so much let it control you, you’ll find yourself start to find other ways to be good at it. What I mean by that is just kind of, yeah it sucks and my memory and my short-term memory was almost completely gone, so I had to do these “brain games” so-to-speak. These cognitive therapy KIM games, which is "Keep In Mind"; we would do those as snipers. Doing those brain games really helped. The meditation piece, I started meditating a lot, doing yoga and trying to just kind of find my center again. That’s helped a lot.
But to focus on something that gives me that drive and that passion, like bull riding and just the western sports community, is something that half the time I don’t even think about it until the pain comes back sometimes, whether it’s in my back or my right lung where I took a hit, just little things like that. Honestly, if you let it control you and you let it define who you are, you’re never going to get past it.
It’s a battle every day. There’s times where I have to yell at myself to get out of bed just because my emotions or my mental state or literally my brain is hurting. It sucks. It’s something I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life, but I’m not just going to sit around and let it define who I am. That’s really what I want to push to other veterans out there if they’re looking to get into anything else is this: Don’t let your past define you. Respect it, but let it build who you want to be in the future and that’s kind of what I’m doing.
How has being a sniper helped you in bull riding? What are some of the parallels between the two?
Being a Marine Corps Scout Sniper, it’s a very independent operation in and of itself. You have to be able to visualize; you have to be able to multi-task at the same time, but that multi-tasking comes with muscle memory. Bull riding is a huge muscle memory and a huge visualization game. When you can build that muscle memory over repetition and over time and time again. You hear bull riders speak about it all the time during their interview after making a great ride, "I just went back to the basics. You know, I kept my mind in the middle."
And really, that’s all being a sniper is. It’s brilliance at the basics. If you can fundamentally apply the brilliance of the basics at a high level a stress, then there’s nothing that can stop you. That’s really all it comes down to.
Do you have some of the same rituals before riding as you do before combat? Did you have any rituals or things that you would go through either mentally, physically or emotionally?
It all started when I was in sniper school. Me and my partner went to sniper school up in Quantico, which is up there in Virginia. The instructors would always try to mess with you: try to get in your head, try to make you get out of your box and get out of your bubble. So me and my partner would always say "Bubble" to each other or something like that.
Before I get in the chute, I slap my firing hand, which is my free hand and that’s the one that I always pulled the trigger with. I slap that one just to kind of get it fired up. Then I just kind of say to myself, "Send it and stay in your bubble." That kind of brings me back into that sniper mentality. Yeah, there might be rounds cracking off around you or all the firefights or explosions that I was in, but you have to be able to stay calm and do your job like a professional—like the professionals that we are. You’re not going to be able to operate at a high level of stress unless you conduct yourself as such.
Having been in combat, having sustained injuries, have any of those affected your bull riding?
Yeah, there’s previous injuries from before getting into bull riding that I have from the military. I developed scoliosis while I was in the military; it’s not severe, but it’s there. It’s noticeable. The doctor said, "Hey, man, you have degenerative disc disease." And everybody’s like, "Man, that sucks!" But, you know, like everybody says you’re going to ride with a little bit of pain. If you can’t put it out of your mind for eight seconds, then maybe you shouldn’t be here.
It can be a huge mental block if you let that get in your head. Like I said earlier, the mind is a very powerful thing. If you let it control you, it will. There’s two different sides to it. There’s the bad aspect of worrying about those injuries and allowing them to affect you while you’re riding or putting it in the back of your mind and respecting it, but also taking a proactive stance on it like yoga and doing back exercises and everything like that. It’s always going to be with me, but it doesn’t mean I can’t take care of it at the same time.
Having been in the military for so long, I know it’s sometimes hard to adjust back to civilian life. Has being in the PBR and that kind of camaraderie, that brotherhood that you found there, has that helped you to make that transition to civilian life?
When you talk to a lot of different vets and you ask them, "Hey, what’s the one thing you miss?" A lot of times that’s the brotherhood, the camaraderie. If I said "No, it didn’t help," I’d be lying to you. Finding that group of guys, whether you travel with them or not, just meeting up with them every time—like I just came from Prescott and now I’m here in Uvalde. Seeing the same guys that were in Prescott or Lebanon or whatnot. Here in the Touring Pro or Velocity we’re riding trying to make our way up to the premiere series. We’re all fighting that same battle and so we respect that for each other.
It’s something that I didn’t think I’d find ever again. But you know that taste when you’ve tasted it before and you’re like, "Man, OK, this is where I’m supposed to be." Even though the military was like, "Hey, we’re kind of done with you," I thought I’d never find it again but here I am and I kind of feel like I’m on the right path in my life.
What’s the best thing about bull riding to you?
The atmosphere. It’s not a fight against the other bull riders—it’s a dance with the bull that everybody respects. It’s something that’s—it’s like everyone wants to be a bull rider until it’s time to do bull rider things. The respect that we have for each other, how everyone just pops up on that chute to pull a rope or chest a guy and the amount of respect that we have for the other roughstock riders, because this is not an easy life. I’d have to say the aspect of respect.
What’s been your best bull ride in your mind?
It’s always going to be the one that’s yet to come. It’s a very fire-and-forget kind of sport. You can have the best ride and if you just focus on that one ride that you had, you probably won’t ever get one as good. But if you focus on the wrong ones, you probably won’t ever ride another one. It’s a huge mental sport, so I always like to say that that best ride is yet to come.
Do you think you have an advantage over a lot of guys in that you’ve already, for lack of a better phrase, been through the valley of the shadow of death? You’ve been there in these situations where it’s literally been life or death taking enemy fire and your mentality has got to be there, so this must be a piece of cake, right?
Kind of, yeah. I don’t like to boast about it. I don’t like to be like, "Hey, because I’ve been through this I’m better than you," because I’m not better than anyone else. I’m trying to just pull my weight and work myself up the ranks. If I see someone struggling—you can see it on their face—if I see them struggling I’m going to go over there and be like, "Hey, man, try this to just kind of put it out of your mind or put yourself at ease."
I have all this knowledge on how to act in high-stress situations from experience in combat, and if I were to just keep that in for myself, I’d be doing a disservice to others. So I try to spread that around and not try to keep it to myself, even though this is a judged sport ad we’re all trying to be that No. 1 bull rider. There’s no reason not to spread it [knowledge].
What are your goals [in bull riding]?
My goals? Win world and get on the Global Cup Team.
Not only are you a veteran, not only were you a Marine sniper, not only have you been through all this stuff, but you’re also Native American. So you’ve got this stack of minority, minority, minority, but it’s something that the PBR is getting behind—they had Team Wolves. Do you feel responsible for not only representing your brotherhood of your Marines, but also your culture? That must be a lot of weight on your shoulders.
It is a lot of weight. And yes, absolutely, having Native American blood, being a Marine, being a sniper in the Marine Corps and being a bull rider, there’s all these different things, but I feel like if anything being in the military and having been in combat with my brothers has taught me it was how to step up and deal with these—I don’t really like to say "minority" aspects in life, I like to say anomalies. I don’t mind being that anomaly in a sea of everything that’s the same. I feel like that kind of pushes me more to be better not just than someone to my left or my right but to be better than I was yesterday.
Something that we would always say in the sniper community is, "Always seek self-improvement every day." I take that mentality aspect and having been in leadership positions, I know how to lead and delegate and prioritize those things in my life. Even though they’re not people anymore, there’s certain aspects that make me who I am and I know how to utilize that in order to be successful.
What’s been the best part of your bull riding journey so far? What’s been the most fun or the most exciting thing that you’ve experienced as a bull rider?
The most fun thing that I’ve experienced or the most fun part of it yet would have to be the people that I meet and the amount of support that is out there. There’s a lot of veterans out there who think that no one is going to be working for them, no one is going to be pushing for them, no one is going to be cheering for them or pulling for them, but they’re out there. You just have to be able to put yourself out there and let people know who you are.
We all have stories, we all have lives that we’ve lived. Just put it out there. Be humble, be a team player, be that change you want to see in the world. Seeing the support that I’ve gotten after getting into the PBR is incredible. It makes me want to be that much more of a better person in life.
If there’s a veteran out there who’s wanting to start riding bulls, what would you tell him? If there’s a Native American kid out there who’s wanting to start riding bulls, what would you tell him?
It’s funny, I’ve actually had a couple [veterans] shoot me a message on Instagram. That’s one thing, I try to be personable, especially with those that want to get into the sport. If we don’t push our knowledge out there or we’re not able to be personable and approachable, then this sport will die off. It is a tough sport. It is something that people look at as extremely dangerous. I try to push what I have in the mentality or the physical aspect to anyone who wants to do it, whether you’re a veteran, a Native kid that people look at and just say, "Oh, that’s that Native kid," or "That’s that Mexican guy," or "That’s that Brazilian guy," or just even American. It doesn’t matter the whole race or minority background. If you want to do it, all it takes is all you’ve got.
What do you want people to know about you that they may not already know? What is a message you want to send to whoever is reading this?
If there’s one major thing that I would want people to know from me is that, it’s more of just advice for anyone out there: Don’t let your past define you. The best is yet to come.