Gory details revealed
Near-fatal experience did not deter bull rider
FORT SMITH — In a sport where toughness is as common as cowboy hats, Denny Flynn stands a cut above.
Mention the Charleston bull rider’s name to the men who competed against him back in the day, and they all remember the time Flynn was gutted by a rank bull in Salt Lake City and lived to tell about it.
Then Flynn returned less than two months later and won the National Finals Rodeo.
“Almost a miracle,” said eight-time bull riding champion Donnie Gay, still amazed by the gruesome injury 35 years later.
Flynn’s improbable comeback to victory in 1975 isn’t the reason he is being inducted today at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., but it very well could be. Flynn, 59, is being inducted in the notables/lifetime achievement category after a 10-year career that saw him win the NFR a record three times and finish second in the world championships three times.
“I never thought I’d get into the Hall of Fame,” Flynn said. “When you start out, all you want to do is just see how good you can get. You want to see if you can ride this bull because somebody else didn’t.”
Flynn’s career, and life, nearly ended just as it was getting started.
Denny Flynn at glance
PROFESSION Bull rider (retired) HOMETOWN Charleston BORN April 21, 1951
FAMILY Wife, Lynn; son, Keith, and daughter, Ari-Anna
CAREER 2002 inductee into the Professional Bull Riders Association Ring of Honor. ... Three-time National Finals Rodeo bull-riding champion and two-time runner-up. ... Finished second in world championships three times and finished third three times. ... Held the world record for a quarter-century with a 98-point ride on Steiner’s Red Lightning in 1979.
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION Flynn will be inducted today in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.. Flynn is being inducted in the lifetime achievement/notable category. Other inductees are Paul Mayo (bareback), John McBeth (saddle bronc), Rex Dunn (contract personnel) and Bennie Beutler (stock contractor).
In July 1975, he was an upand-coming bull rider with one NFR under his belt and was fifth in the world rankings, cruising toward another NFR appearance.
Flynn had just completed a 65-point ride when the bull — No. 11 — pitched him into the air. Flynn landed on the bull’s horn, and it pierced Flynn’s abdomen just to the left of his navel and plowed 10 inches into his chest.
When the bull pulled away, the horn ripped out Flynn’s intestines. Flynn, described in rodeo circles as soft-spoken, is typically nonchalant recalling the injury, but he knew immediately that it was serious.
“When you’re holding your guts in your hands, it’s a little scary,” Flynn said.
“He was eviscerated,” Gay said.
Randy Magers, Flynn’s travel partner who witnessed the accident, remembers his friend staggering toward him and saying he had been gutted. Magers, misunderstanding what Flynn said, pulled his friend’s hands away and had to catch Flynn’s intestines.
“I started running around like a chicken with his head cut off,” Magers said. “I had a reride, and the guy told me to get ready. I told him he could take that reride and shove it you know where.
“Flynn’s over there with his guts in his hands and started laughing.”
COMEBACK KID Doctors removed a piece of Flynn’s shirt one-half inch from his heart, and he missed two months during the most lucrative rodeo time of the year. He dropped out of the top 15 on the money list — the NFR is a season-ending competition between the top 15 cowboys in each event — and was a long shot to make the field.
When Flynn returned, he was understandably hornshy around hooking bulls, the aggressive bulls that like to turn on dismounted cowboys. Flynn drew a hooking bull at a Memphis rodeo and was about decline the ride when Magers told him that he had to ride the bull or Flynn would never be able to ride a tough one again.
Flynn admits he was scared stiff, but he rode the bull and won the rodeo. After the whistle blew, Flynn said he tore the skin off his hand getting off the bull.
“When the whistle blew, it looked like he was running on air,” said Magers, laughing at the memory. “He wanted off that bull badly, but after that he didn’t have a problem.”
Flynn rallied, earning enough money down the stretch to make the NFR. At the NFR, Flynn rode nine bulls to win the first of his three titles.
“It was just an awesome deal,” Gay said. “It’s a testament to his drive and determination. He was a quarterinch from dying, and less than three months later he won a major competition.”
Magers said that 1975 NFR title ranks with the best a cowboy can do.
“He’s as proud of that buckle as anything he has done,” Magers said.
Flynn did plenty more in his career. He went on to win NFR bull riding titles in 1981 and 1982, winning the last one despite breaking his leg when a bull stomped on his ankle late in the competition.
At the time, cowboys were required to get on 10 bulls to qualify to win the NFR title. Flynn, with one bull to go and a mangled leg, convinced a reluctant doctor to release him from the hospital with a heavy cast — “He even wrapped up my toes,” Flynn said — so he could sit on the 10th bull the next day.
When the gate swung open and the bull roared out of the chute, Flynn, cast and all, was “a-hangin’ on to the gate.”
The lone hole in Flynn’s resume is his lack of a world championship. In rodeo, there are two major titles each year: the world title and the NFR title.
In 1980, Flynn finished second to Gay, losing the world title by just $188. That was as close as he would get to capturing a world title.
“He never won a world championship, but that doesn’t diminish how you think of Denny Flynn,” Gay said. “The fact is, he was a great bull rider.”
Flynn said he was simply too conservative during his career, skipping rodeos to save money on travel and expenses.
“Saving money and having something when I got done meant a lot to me,” said Flynn, now the director of Kay Rodgers Park in Fort Smith. “If I hadn’t been too tight and just gassed it and gone on, I probably could have won a world title once or twice.”
DOWN ON THE FARM
Flynn never thought of such lofty goals when he was riding animals on the family farm. He said he and his older brother, Mike, would jump on any critter not paying attention — show bulls, steers, even the family’s cows.
“We’d catch them eating at the trough and run up behind them and jump on,” Flynn said. “Nothing likes having somebody suddenly land on their back, so they’d take off.”
Flynn’s most memorable ride came in 1979 on a beast of a bull named Steiner’s Red Lightning in Palestine, Ill. The bull, the bucking bull of the year in 1978, exploded out of the gate with a huge leap and took Flynn on the ride of his life.
Flynn’s 98-point ride stood as the world record for a quarter-century.
“The first jump he blowed out of the chute, I knew this son of a gun was going to buck,” Flynn said. “You could just feel the power. You never know what the score is going to be, but I knew it was one of the best bull rides I’d ever been on.”
That’s as close Flynn comes to bragging. Even as he nears 60, he talks about how excited he was as a young professional just to ride in a car with his boyhood idol, Paul Mayo.
Today, Flynn will stand alongside Mayo as both are inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“One of the best things God ever give us was our memory,” Flynn said. “I can sit back and look at my career and my friends and all the stories that went along with every year I rodeoed.
“When you start out, you never think you’re going to make the Hall of Fame. It’s a dream.”