Ty Pozzobon’s family says he suffered at least 12 concussions during his professional bull riding career, but the worst happened in November 2014 when he was thrown by a 1,500-pound beast named Boot Strap Bill. Pozzobon was unconscious before he hit the ground, but then the bull stepped on his head, shattering the hockey helmet he was wearing for protection.
“The look in his eyes changed after that,” his mother, Leanne, told Maclean’s in February, about a month after he took his own life in British Columbia at the age of 25. “He used to have these dark, dark eyes that really shone. But for this past year and a half, they’d gone dull.”
His eyes only told part of the story. Four days before his death, Pozzobon’s mother said he suffered a panic attack at a supermarket. The day before he died, she told Maclean’s, the 2016 Professional Bull Riders Canada champion and four-time PBR world finalist announced that he planned to sell his herd of 120 cattle, only to repeatedly change his mind and then change it back again over the course of the day. That erratic behavior, combined with anxiety and depression, led Pozzobon’s family to ask researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine to examine his brain after his death.
They found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma.
“Superficially, his brain looked pretty good, like any 25-year-old’s should,” said Dirk Keene, one of the researchers who looked at Pozzobon’s brain, told the Vancouver Sun. But looking closer under a microscope, Keene said the signs of CTE were there.
Keene and colleague Christine MacDonald told the Sun that they believe Pozzobon to be the first professional bull rider whose brain showed signs of CTE, which for now can only be diagnosed after a person has died.
Starting with the 2013 season, a year before Pozzobon’s most notorious spill, Professional Bull Riders started requiring contestants born after Oct. 15, 1994, to wear helmets. Riders born before that date could make their own decisions on protective headgear. PBR’s official website says “over 50 percent” choose to wear one, but do they actually do any good?
“What I can tell you is that there does not appear to be a statistically significant difference between riders with helmets versus without helmets in the number of concussions received yet,” Tandy Freeman, PBR’s longtime medical team leader, told the New York Times in 2015.
In 2012, PBR instituted a concussion-evaluation system in which riders are examined before the start of the season to establish baseline cognitive data. When an rider is suspected of suffering a head injury, doctors administer the same test, and those results are compared to that data collected before the season. According to the Times and Maclean’s, Freeman can hold a rider out of competition until he passes that second test.
“PBR has medical personnel present at every event we produce, is working with experienced organizations to develop advanced protective equipment and is engaging with riders regularly in new research and development initiatives,” the circuit said in a statement released Tuesday after news broke of Pozzobon’s CTE diagnosis.
Pozzobon competed in only three PBR events in the United States and 10 in Canada in the year that followed his 2014 run-in with Boot Strap Bill, but he was back in full in 2016 and earned nearly $140,000. PBR has increased its purses in recent years thanks to the sport’s growing popularity, which only adds to the dilemma because riders can’t earn that money if they don’t mount up. The incentive to hide head injuries is great.
“We are the NFL in 1962,” Chad Besplug, a former champion bull rider and friend of Pozzobon’s, told Maclean’s. “None of us wants to change the nature of bull riding — these guys want to compete, and that’s what makes them beautiful. But it’s also what makes us a danger to ourselves.”