HUGHESVILLE- Almost every time professional bull rider Cord McCoy goes to work, the only thing between him and a trip to the emergency room are a couple guys dressed in clown suits.
But rodeo clowns are far from comedians, said McCoy, who competed in a bull riding competition Monday at the Lycoming County Fair.
Their mission, to protect fallen or dismounted bull riders, is as serious as any job in professional sports, he said.
"They'll step in front of a bullet for you. That is about what they're doing," McCoy said. "They're stepping in to take a hit for me."
Typically, one clown will be on hand to provide comic relief for the audience. Two others - called "bull fighters" - are there to prevent a bull from crushing or goring a cowboy.
"That career is not for everybody," McCoy said. "You have to have nerves of steel. Those two guys' job - each and every time a bull comes out - is to get you away safely."
That doesn't mean McCoy, who many may know as a contestant with his brother Jet in two seasons of "The Amazing Race" television series, never has been injured in the bull ring.
He sports a long hook-shaped scar on the left side of his head - the result of having his skull crushed in a bull riding incident in 2004. The injury put McCoy out of commission for eight months, he said.
Even if a rider can stay on a bull for the eight seconds required for a successful ride, it is likely the rider will have, at a minimum, a few aches and pains as a result, he said.
"(It's like) in a boxing match. Even when you win you're going to take some punches," he said. "It's the same as in bull riding. You're getting banged up.
"I will say it is the toughest eight seconds in sports," he added. "It's a sport that in eight seconds asks you for everything you've got."
Much of the physical abuse a rider experiences goes on after the eight seconds are over, McCoy said. That is because bulls do not recognize when the competition is over.
"It's not just the eight seconds," he said. "Those bulls don't know when to stop. Until you are safely on the other side of the fence, the competition is still on."
McCoy said bull riders are extremely tough athletes, but not because of the sport's potential for injuries. Their toughness comes from the fact that bull riders will get up and ride again in spite of their injuries.
That is especially true in July when the bull riding circuit is most active. McCoy said those weeks are called "Cowboy Christmas" because of the number of events being held.
"Some of these guys have gotten on three or four bulls a week and they are pretty banged up," McCoy said. "When you look at the injury lists you see how tough these guys are. Some of them have been stepped on and some of them have been knocked out and they are still showing up to ride."
For the Lycoming County Fair, the event provided an opportunity for fair goers to see bull riding up close and personal for the very first time.
According to Lycoming County Fair Association President Jack Smith, the idea for sponsoring a bull riding competition was presented to him by organizer Michael Miller, of Jersey Shore-based Mike Miller Bucking Bulls.
"I understand it's very popular. That's why we accepted Mr. Miller's proposal," Smith said. "We're just looking for a favorable (turnout)."
As of Monday morning, tickets sales for the event had been "brisk," Smith said.
The competition is sanctioned by the Southern Extreme Bullriding Association, Miller said.
The competition featured 42 bull riders and 58 bulls from all over the United States.
According to Miller, scoring for a bull riding competition is performed by four judges, two who judge the rider and two who judge the bull.
Each judge enters a score of between one and 25, so a particular ride has the potential of scoring a maximum of 100 points.
The ideal scenario would be for a rider to successfully ride a bull that will buck vigorously, McCoy said.
"It is a judged event so you want a rank bull - a bull the judges like and the crowd likes - that is hard to ride," he said.
According to Miller, riders strap one hand to the bull with a flat braided rope.
When the bull is released from a chute into the bull ring, the rider must stay on it for eight seconds without touching himself, the bull or the ground with his free hand.
McCoy said he has been involved in bull riding since he was barely out of diapers, yet he realizes every time he enters the chute to sit on a bull he is facing a dangerous situation.
"No matter how long you've been riding, every time you step over into the chute you realize the danger involved," he said. "Even the nicest bull here tonight - he's still going to weigh 1,700 pounds. If that bull accidentally steps on you, that's 1,700 pounds of force behind it. They're all dangerous."
While wearing a flak jacket became mandatory for professional bull riders after 25-year-old bull riding champion Lane Frost was killed by a bull in 1989, helmets still are optional, McCoy said.
McCoy also said he is among about 50 percent of the bull riders who choose to wear a helmet.
According to Miller, the bulls involved in riding competitions are as much athletes as the riders themselves.
McCoy agreed, adding that some bulls have become celebrities much like the cowboys who ride them.
"We joke that if the bulls ever learn how to sign autographs, they're going to put us out of business," he said.