Photo: Christy Burleson

A beacon of the bull riding world before and after his life-altering accident, the 30-year-old Texan embraces a new level of stardom.

The Professional Bull Riders’ January 2016 season opener in Chicago started off with a bang for athlete Bonner Bolton, who took second place in the first round. In the next round, he drew a bull called Cowboy Up. The pair moved seamlessly in time together, step for step like a dance. Bolton made the whistle.

The ride looked near perfect. The dismount, however, did not.

Bolton was launched high in the air off the back of the bull and landed at an odd angle on his neck. He felt the break.

Fully conscious, Bolton lay facedown in the dirt, trying to catch his breath while the bull bucked over him. He tried to raise his head but was met with a sharp pain. The rest of his body was completely limp, unmovable. Bolton was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.

That moment was both the end and the beginning, in terms of Bolton’s career as a bull rider and his trajectory toward mainstream media success as an actor, model, and Dancing With the Stars competitor.

The “cowboy” label has stayed put throughout.

Bolton, now 30, grew up on a ranch in West Texas, near Odessa. His father was an accomplished bull rider, and Bolton looked up to him. The ranch, which had been in his mother’s family since 1903, immersed Bolton in the Western way of life as his love of rodeo flourished.

In 2008, at age 20, Bolton won the Championship Bull Riding world title.

A string of injuries would plague Bolton over the next several years, including a torn biceps, elbow surgery, and a shattered collarbone. Despite these setbacks, Bolton was on the cusp of realizing his ultimate goal of a world championship with the Professional Bull Riders.

The burgeoning athlete was also getting his first taste of Hollywood. The Nicholas Sparks novel The Longest Ride was being turned into a feature film, and PBR sent out the call for bull riders to serve as actor Scott Eastwood’s stunt double. Bolton answered the call. “I knew it was a good opportunity. I was just coming off an injury, trying to knock the rust off and get back on,” he says. After a triumphant ride on a top-ranked bull for the final action scene, Bolton felt better than ever. Securing his place on the 2015 PBR tour, he successfully qualified for his first PBR World Finals that fall, finishing in seventh place overall. Bolton headed into 2016 thinking it could finally be his year for the championship. But there in the dirt in that Chicago arena, Bolton knew his neck was broken. He could see the concern on the normally stoic face of PBR physician Tandy Freeman.

“I remember feeling like it could be my last day on earth, and I just remember praying my last prayer,” Bolton says. “You think about everything that matters to you most in a moment like that, and everything that does matter becomes very clear instantly.” Bolton had shattered his C2 and C3 vertebrae, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. But his movement and sensitivity returned over the next 24 hours. “[The doctors] said the real miracle was that one of those bone fractures never chipped into my major artery there, which runs your whole brain and body function,” he says. “They said that’s why most people that sustain that injury never walk or talk again.” Six hours of surgery repaired Bolton’s neck, and although he walked out of the hospital, he faced a long road to recovery. Using physical therapy and intense exercise, Bolton worked toward what he hoped would be a return to bull riding. Doctors initially told him there was a chance.

“I think they told me that to give me hope,” he says. “They probably knew deep down I would never ride again.” With the placement of the metal between his C2 and C3, right next to a main artery, it became clear that Bolton wouldn’t be released by his doctor to ride. The dangers associated with any new injury were too great.

“It broke my heart to hear that because of how hard I’d worked to come back,” he says. “Then, to have it all ripped away and my lifelong dreams ripped out from under me in the prime of my athletic career, it was really tough to hear. The next few months were pretty tough to go through.”

Bolton describes having dark moments struggling with physical and emotional pain, feeling angry and lost. He even thought about taking his own life. It’s a mental health struggle he says he doesn’t mind sharing, because he wants to give hope to others who may feel there is no hope. “I just had to really dig deep, bury my head in my chest, give it all up, and just know that no matter what happens, there’s more to life,” he says, crediting his faith with recovering emotionally.

Bolton also credits IMG Models with helping him back on his feet. “The light at the end of the tunnel started appearing. I started to realize there could be a new future for me doing something else.” He signed on with the modeling entity of WME | IMG, an entertainment talent agency that had become aware of Bolton after acquiring PBR in 2015. Now, Bolton has redirected his determination toward modeling, acting, and being an ambassador for the PBR and the cowboy way of life. He’s brought his boots and cowboy hat into the fashion realms of London, Paris, and New York, modeling for high-profile entities like Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s hopefully giving people that never knew anything about rodeo or the cowboy lifestyle in general a positive look on who we are, what we do, and what cowboys stand for,” he says.

PBR CEO Sean Gleason had been impressed by Bolton in the arena and on the set of The Longest Ride, and he says the organization looks forward to a long relationship with him. “[The mainstream public] has very little exposure to [cowboy] athletes in the sport, and I think it generally creates a little bit of a wall in terms of understanding the fact that these guys are great guys, athletes in their own right. So when you expose them in an environment outside of the arena, it humanizes them. And people are more inclined to check out what they do for a living,” Gleason says of the mutual benefits.

While Bolton’s success is certainly not the first time a cowboy has crossed into the mainstream, and it’s always been a goal of PBR, according to Gleason, the organization has benefited from resources now being owned by WME | IMG.

Bolton was thrust into the spotlight this past spring as a fan-favorite competitor on Dancing With the Stars, where he finished in the final five. He acknowledges the rigorous training and competition were painful for his body, but he was drawn to the opportunity to share his story of triumph over physical and mental health challenges, especially after losing a friend and fellow bull rider, Ty Pozzobon, to suicide in January of this year.

“I knew I was fighting the good fight for a reason,” he says. “There’s a lot of people out there struggling with pain, whether it’s in their heart or physically. I just believed I survived that wreck to be a beacon of hope. That meant the world to me to be able to hopefully inspire other people.”

And though his new schedule in the limelight can be tiring, the success of his goal was apparent at the Country Music Association Music Festival in Nashville this summer. Bolton was constantly approached by fans who had rooted for him and been moved by his story.

“I wasn’t the best dancer, and that was obvious, but it wasn’t about that. It was about overcoming all that I had went through and just having belief in myself to go out there and try. I let people know it’s OK to be overwhelmed by the odds, but don’t let the odds determine your outcome.”

With that, and a busy list of new projects and appearances ahead, Bolton appears to be embracing the true meaning of “cowboy up.”

From the October 2017 issue.