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A daredevil in clown white
Bullfighters integral to bull riding sport
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Vern Reynolds, like everyone involved with the bull riding sport, is addicted to danger.

But while a rider’s goal is to stay atop a bucking bull for eight seconds, Reynolds, wearing clown white, baggy denim shorts, suspenders and knee-high red socks, earns his keep by getting 1,800-pound animals to charge him.

And after more than a dozen years entertaining the crowds at regional events like the Southeastern Championship Bull Riding competition being held this weekend at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville, the veteran bullfighter still gets nervous.

"When I first walk out there, I get those butterflies," Reynolds said.

He and fellow bullfighter, Walt Phillips, are responsible for distracting and sometimes corralling the bulls after they throw their riders.

"It’s man versus beast. But once they crack that gate and the first one comes out, it’s just another day at the office," Reynolds said.

Reynolds, 37, of Central, S.C., tried his hand at bull riding for two years but had little success.

"I was more of a get-up-on-’er than a rider," he joked.

He found his niche in the demanding job of the bullfighter, who grabs, cajoles, taunts and dodges bulls to get them away from the riders and back safely into their pens.

It’s a job that earns respect.

"It’s the most important job in rodeo, really," said Jason Cahill, 25, one of the top riders in the Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association circuit. "People come out to see the bull riders. But without the bullfighters, the bull riders are going to be hard to come by."

Cahill said bullfighters like Reynolds are people "you trust your life with. It takes a different kind of man to be a bullfighter. It’s nerves of steel."

Reynolds "is not afraid to get hit for you," Cahill said. "He’s just tough."

While the Mountains Center crowd laughed as Reynolds ran in circles to attract the attention of one bull Friday night, it’s not all fun and games. There was the broken ankle in 2005. Last year, he feared he had broken his back. Each night brings its share of bumps and bruises.

Some bulls are worse than others. These days, he’s especially wary of one on the circuit they call Southern Gangster.

"He’s kinda snorty," Reynolds said. "He’ll get in your shorts if you’re not careful. These bulls are just like people. You never know when they’re gonna wake up in a bad mood. You just got to treat them all like they’re going to maul you."

Reynolds does the bullfighting gig about 35 weekends out of the year. During the week, he installs septic systems with a company out of Liberty, S.C.

"I do this for a living," he said of bullfighting. "I work for a hobby."

The slender six-footer say he doesn’t do anything to stay in shape between events.

"I’m a couch potato," Reynolds said, adding, "most Mondays I’m so sore I can’t do anything else."

Bullfighters are easy to come by, but good bullfighters are highly valued, said show organizer Bryan Hope, who doubles as one of the event’s clowns.

"Tons and tons of people want to be the bullfighter," Hope said. "It is a thrill to get out there and grab a bull by the head. It is a rush."

A healthy dose of fear helps, Reynolds said.

"The old saying is, you try to be quicker scared than they are mad."