The struggle lasts only a few seconds, but to the cowboys riding the bulls, it must seem like an eternity.
A cheering crowd watched 35 of the world's best bull riders compete Sunday during the Professional Bull Riders Chicago Invitational at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The riders took turns riding, 2,000-pound bucking bulls for eight seconds while holding a rope that's wrapped around the bull's waist.
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"Think of it as a dance," said event spokesman Jack Carnefix. "This partner has four legs. This one has two legs. If they work together and everything goes good, they're going to get a better score."
"I call it a ballet with a bull," added Mark "Tuffy" Voyles, a cameraman at the event.
The elaborate production was enhanced by pyrotechnics. To start the competition, the arena lights were dimmed and the riders were introduced as jet flames shot from oversized cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon -- a natural tie-in for an event given that the beer shares initials with the event.
"Backstage" in the bullpen, Mary Slick, of Manhattan, Ill. watched as her 5-year-old son, Kyle, had the thrill of having his shirt signed by the bull riders. Kyle is undergoing chemotherapy and was at the event courtesy of the Believe in Tomorrow Children's Foundation.
The two-day contest in Rosemont is the second of the professional bull riders' season, which consists of 26 stops, Carnefix said. The previous week's event in Madison Square Garden attracted 45,000 spectators.
The winner makes between $35,000 and $40,000. At the end of the season, the world champion gets a $1 million bonus.
Each ride is scored by four judges, which judge not only look the rider, but also the bull.
One of the riders, Douglas Duncan, of Alvin, Texas, said he gained his interest in the sport from his dad, who also was a rider.
"It makes me feel alive," Duncan said. "It's just an adrenaline rush. God gave me the ability to do something that not many people can do. I don't ride the bulls for the money. It's the feeling that I get when I get on."
If Duncan was looking for an adrenaline rush, he certainly received a heavy dose Sunday when he stayed on his spinning, flailing and kicking bull so long that at the end he was literally hanging on for dear life by the animal's neck.
The enthusiastic audience included Buffalo Grove resident Lynne Benson, who said her interest in the sport dates back to when she attended events at Chicago's Wrigley Field.
"My dad used to take us to the rodeo over there," she said. "Then they had it on television on cable, and when there was nothing else to watch, we would turn on bull riding and watch that. Now we just go because of the western lifestyle. The cowboys are so respectful to all the people and all the fans," she said, mentioning that the riders stay after to sign autographs without asking for money.
Television also was responsible for prompting Schaumburg residents Jerry and Barbara Glasby to watch the sport in person.
"It's the thrill of watching them do something we can't do," Barbara said. "It's the danger factor."