Rodeo rider bucks odds, recovers to ride again
A wily, cantankerous bronco sent Ethan Wessel of Marion sprawling into the arena dirt Friday in the Flint Hills Rodeo in Strong City, frustratingly short of the eight seconds he needed for a score.
Wessel got up, brushed himself off and walked out of the arena. It was an unremarkable scene that plays out multiple times at every rodeo.
In Wessel’s case, it was remarkable, and not because he had suffered a dislocated hip a week earlier in a spill at Conway Springs.
“That’s how everybody goes,” Wessel said.
It was remarkable because in 2008 surgeons used rods and screws and bone fragments to reconstruct a portion of Wessel’s spine crushed by the violent stomp of a bull in a high school rodeo. Few thought Wessel would ever return to competitive rodeo.
“He broke his back less than four years ago and he’s already back on it,” Wessel’s girlfriend Emily Rogers said. “I don’t know anybody else who’s shattered their spine and got back on.”
Horses have been a part of Wessel’s life since he was a youngster growing up in Cedar Point.
“He’s been on horses ever since he could walk,” Wessel’s father Roy said.
Wessel was still in elementary school when he made his first foray into the world of rodeo.
“I started off sheep-riding, and went to calves, then to steers for awhile,” Wessel said.
“From the very beginning he had a love for it,” Wessel’s mother Brenda said. “There are ranch rodeos — a group of them got together and won. They got to go to Amarillo, Texas. Ethan was around 8 years old.”
Wessel had a family connection to rodeo that fueled his interest as well.
“My uncle Ray Wessel, he was a bull rider. He made it to the National Finals Rodeo two or three times,” Wessel said.
“We had a good friend, Tex Benjamin, who helped Ethan along the way,” Brenda said. “He learned by trial and error, picking things up along the way.”
The Wessels moved to Marion in 2004 when Roy went to work at the feed yard of Dale Peterson, but because Brenda worked for the Chase County school district, Wessel continued attending school in Cottonwood Falls.
In high school Wessel chose rodeo over football, and bull-riding was one of his events. He was riding a bull in a rodeo in Topeka in September his senior year when he was thrown. His protective vest slid up when he landed, and the bull’s hoof landed squarely on Wessel’s exposed back.
Watching from the stands, Brenda wasn’t overly concerned at first. That changed when she saw the look on the face of Benjamin’s wife Mary, who was near Wessel.
“When I saw her face, I knew it was something bad,” Brenda said.
It was bad enough the doctors at Stormont-Vail Hospital in Topeka couldn’t take care of him. Wessel flew by helicopter to Via Christi-St. Francis in Wichita for surgery.
“They said I’d never ride rough stock again,” Wessel said.
Brenda said the immediate response of medical personnel at the rodeo to immobilize Wessel on the ground was key to his recovery.
“Thank God they didn’t get him up on his feet, it would have paralyzed him,” Brenda said.
Wessel left the hospital with a back brace, a walker, and orders for bed rest. That lasted for a couple of months.
“I started kinda getting back on horses,” Wessel said. “I wasn’t supposed to, but I did anyway. Just regular broke horses, and I worked at the feed yard when I could.”
“He was a little hesitant around the cattle for awhile, but that was understandable,” Roy said.
Wessel got back into competitive rodeo in 2010 when he became a member of the rodeo team at Pratt Community College.
“My freshman year I started bull-dogging and steer wrestling. My coach, Doug Janke, he took me under his wing and taught me everything about it,” Wessel said. “My sophomore year I really started hitting rodeos with that, stayed off the rough stock, and healed up some more.”
Once he felt he was ready, Wessel returned to rough stock, choosing saddle broncs over bulls this time.
“I always liked bronc riding better,” Wessel said. “I really got along with the bronc riding better.”
They knew they couldn’t keep him from it, but that didn’t keep Wessel’s parents from feeling anxiety over his choice.
“It wasn’t easy watching him go back again,” Roy said.
“Ethan loves danger, no matter what it is,” Brenda said. “I still get nervous, probably a little more so now.”
Wessel was matter-of-fact when describing why he’s back riding broncs.
“I just have a passion for doing this. I’d do it every day if I could. I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline or what,” Wessel said. “I’m going to do it until I can’t do it anymore.”
Wessel said he’s been tossed from his mount three times this year in 15 rides. When he stays on, the results are encouraging.
“I won at Salina, got second at Argonia. I’m at least in the top four in all I’ve been to, except the ones where I got bucked off.”
Wessel’s attitude toward the accident that threatened to derail his rodeo career indicates he’s put it well in the past.
“You’ve got to have confidence in yourself even when you do take a couple bad wrecks. It’s going to happen in rodeo,” Wessel said.