Not much scares Ben Prilwetz, not even a 2,000-pound bull charging after him.
The 2003 St. Clair High School graduate has been knocked around by the best of them — hit in the chest, bucked in the air, sliced with a horn — and walked away every time.
That’s the life of a bull fighter, said Prilwetz, with a shrug. “We take the hit for the bull rider.”
“My job as a bull fighter is to protect the bull rider,” he explained. “That’s why they call us ‘the Secret Service of bull riding’ . . . When he falls off the bull, my first job is to get the bull away from him, no matter if it means me getting hit or if it’s too big of a gap . . . then I step in between and take the hit.
“If (the rider’s) hand gets stuck in the rope, my job is to jump on the bull’s back while he’s bucking to get the hand out.”
Prilwetz got his start in bull fighting at the Franklin County Youth Fair in Union back in 2004 when he was 19. Nine years later, after a career at the professional level, he’s back at the Union Fair in a new role — producer.
The Union Fair, for the first time, will feature a professional bull riding event, and organizers hired Prilwetz to bring it all together.
The Kathy Prilwetz Memorial Professional Bullriding and Barrel Bash will be held Saturday, July 13, at the Union fairgrounds.
The barrel racing will begin at 9 a.m., and the professional bull riding will get under way at 7 p.m.
Prilwetz said spectators will notice a “big jump” in the caliber of the bull ride.
“The organization we brought in, NFPB, National Federation of Professional Bull Riders, is the second largest in the world. PBR is the first,” said Prilwetz.
“The amount of bull power here will outdo any fair or rodeo around, besides the St. Louis PBR (Professional Bull Riders).”
Prilwetz said he has 44 bulls coming to the event, and the best 40 will compete. There will be 32 riders registered, and the top eight will make it to a final round.
Career Planned Since Age 4
Prilwetz was just 4 years old the first time he told his parents, Charles and the late Kathy Prilwetz, St. Clair, that he wanted to grow up to be a bull fighter.
He was introduced to the sport through videos his dad had of bull fighting bloopers, and while the videos were entertaining, they never sugarcoated the danger.
“There were guys being taken out on stretchers,” said Prilwetz.
Still, from that point on, he was hooked.
“I used to think, ‘They’ve got a cool job. It looks way more exciting than riding,’ ” Prilwetz told The Missourian.
Getting started wasn’t easy though. With rodeos, it’s all about name recognition, said Prilwetz, who first began calling producers about working as a bull fighter when he was just 12 years old.
It didn’t matter that he was too young, he said, because no one ever took him seriously since they didn’t know his name.
So Prilwetz decided to make a name for himself through bull riding. He was 16 when he entered his first competition. His first serious injury came a couple of years later when he shattered his arm so badly that he had to have a metal plate put in.
Still, it didn’t deter him any.
“I came back half a year later and won the American finals,” said Prilwetz.
After that, he was able to make the jump to bull fighting, “and I never looked back,” he remarked.
The move actually made his mom happier because she felt he was safer in that role.
“She felt more comfortable because she knew I was really fast,” he said.
‘When They Hit, You’re Flying’
There are schools where they teach people how to be bull fighters, but Prilwetz didn’t attend any of them. He learned it, he said, by attending as many of the “big” rodeos as he could and paying attention.
“I would zone in on the bull fighters, just watch and paid close attention,” said Prilwetz.
It helped that his talents were naturally suited to bull fighting — being fast, agile and confident.
“In bull riding and bull fighting, most of your guys, . . . are very cocky,” admits Prilwetz. “It’s an arrogant sport . . . Everybody has to be overconfident of themselves, because if you’re not, you’re going to get killed.
“Thinking is not an option. If you have time to think, you’re late.”
Right away, Prilwetz began winning awards. In 2004, he was voted into the WRCA (Wrangler Rough Stock Association) pro-amateur finals.
After about a year and a half of fighting bulls at amateur shows, Prilwetz went pro in November 2005.
For three years in a row (2005, 2006 and 2007) he was named bull fighter of the year by WRCA; and in 2007, 2008 and 2009 he was named Missouri Rodeo Cowboys Association Bull Fighter of the Year.
Even with all of his success, Prilwetz has had plenty of injuries from bull fighting. Fortunately, none have been life-threatening.
“I’ve broken the majority of all my ribs at one time or another, been split across my face. This tooth here is fake . . . I was getting a guy’s hand out of a rope, and I was up there over the bull, and the bull caught me out of the corner of his eye and threw his horn back.
They’re real smart. Most of them know how to use (their horns) and know their distance. They’re like a boxer . . . they know how to get a hold of you. So he reached back to hit me and it split me across my face, knocked my tooth out. Had my nose fractured. I’ve blackened both of his eyes, been knocked unconscious . . .”
When that happens, it’s the job of the other bull fighter to take the bull, chase him in a straight line away from the injured person and keep him occupied.
“You don’t want to just grab anybody, because you don’t know what their injury is,” said Prilwetz.
He recalled one time early in his career when his fellow bull fighter (there are two at all professional bull riding events) was knocked unconsious and there was nothing he could do, so he just laid on top of him.
“I took the hits, and finally the bull got tired of hitting me and just left.”
Sometimes these injuries come early in a day’s work, said Prilwetz, noting once he knew he had at least a couple of broken ribs and a black eye after just the third bull rider. He had 30-plus more riders to go, but he stayed in the arena.
Bull fighters don’t quit, he said.
Prilwetz does wear protective clothing, including a Kevlar (bulletproof) vest with a hard shell and some thin padding on their legs, but that’s about it. They could wear more, but the more armor they wear, the heavier it is, which only slows them down and gives the bull an advantage.
The vest is meant to absorb some of the shock from being hit by the bull, which Prilwetz compared to being hit by car at 25 miles per hour.
“It hurts,” he said.
“A bull, their neck is probably 2 feet in diameter. That’s just side to side . . . So when they hit you, you’re flying. You’re going way high.
“They either hit you and go over the top of you. Some will actually get on top of you. Others will throw you in the air.
“Some are so aggressive, they will throw you in the air and then stop and wait for you to land,” said Prilwetz. “They will sit there underneath me.”
The vest also leaves some vulnerable areas exposed, like the armpit. Prilwetz has seen one bull fighter die because he was pierced in the armpit area by a bull’s horn. The horns do have to be shaved down so that the tip is the size of a quarter (rather than a sharp point), but with enough force that’s still small enough that a hit to a vulnerable area like that can be fatal.
Prilwetz recalled one time when a bull hooked his horn under his jersey and protective vest so that he couldn’t move.
“He ripped it off me. I waited until it came off his head, went over and picked it up,” said Prilwetz. “The rider never got touched. So I did my job.”
Another time one of the bull riders he was protecting got his hand caught in the rope and it took Prilwetz “three jumps” to get it out.
“(The bull) bucked three good times in the air, and you can see the guy’s hand twisted in there,” he said, motioning to a photo.
The bulls, who range in size from 1,100 to 2,200 pounds, are very smart, said Prilwetz, noting some do have intent to injure, but others don’t.
“Some bulls you can go in the back pens, rub on and pet them, but then they come out in the arena, they will put a hurt on you, come after you with a vengeance.
“Another bull, would buck really hard, used to hurt a lot of guys because of the way he bucked, but as soon as they hit the ground, he left them alone.
“The majority of bulls, are like any other athlete — they’re excited, they’re amped up, and if you’re right there, they will take you down.”
From Fighting to Producing
Prilwetz said it’s the adrenaline rush of bull fighting that keeps him coming back year after year. Also, the fact that after all these years, he feels more comfortable than ever out there.
“To me it’s a challenge, to see how close I can get in there and get back out and not be touched,” he commented. “That’s what keeps me doing it. I get enjoyment of taking care of these guys. After a while they become your friends, but it’s the challenge.
“The longer I do it, the more relaxed I get at it. Like now, I will step in, I will step right between them. I’ll get down on one knee. I’ll grab the bull by its face, stand back up and walk around him, and just walk out.”
Still, at this point in his career, Prilwetz expects he’ll only keep fighting for another year, at most, mainly because he’s tired of traveling.
Since he hit the pro level, most of his jobs take him out of state — Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, everywhere in the Midwest.
With a wife, Amanda (nee Goodman), and a 1-year-old daughter, Rozzyn, at home now, he’s ready to move on to the next level — producing.
He sees the Franklin County Fair as his start on that path.
Prilwetz’s wife, Amanda, who competes in barrel racing, is producing the barrel racing portion of the competition that morning.
Prilwetz said he has a contract with the Union Fair to produce the bull ride show for two more years and looking ahead he would like to see the event expand beyond just the bull riding also to include bull fighting competitions.
There are actually two kinds of bull fighting — cowboy protection and also freestyle competition, where fighters take on Mexican fight bulls, which he’s done about eight times himself, and taken first in every one.
“You have a long alley, called a shotgun shoot. And it’s just you by yourself. It’s probably the scariest thing you’ll ever do.
“You call for the bull, have this Mexican fighting bull just flying down this arena . . . at full run, you have to stand there . . . About time he gets at arm’s length, you move. If you move before that, he’ll cut you off.
“When they come at you, right at the last minute, you step with the opposite foot and throw a fake, just like a running back will do, and go back the other way.”
It’s kind of a modern-day gladiator competition, he remarked.
Personally, Prilwetz is challenging himself with other new activities. He’s currently learning to calf rope and gearing up for competitions.
“To me it’s something new. I have been team roping. It’s fun, but I like something that’s a little harder, that not everybody does. Calf roping, to me, is that.”