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Bullrider Greg Whitlow is seen in this file photo. (Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail)
Bullrider Greg Whitlow is seen in this file photo. (Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail)

Calgary stampede

Whitlow remains bullish on bulls despite earning the nickname ‘Patch’ Add to ...

His cellphone is playing a jolly tune in his shirt pocket and he wants you to hear it. So out comes the phone and in starts Captain Tractor singing, “I’m gonna be a pirate on the river Saskatchewan.”

Greg Whitlow cracks up. His right eye is shining like the saucer-sized silver belt buckle he’s wearing; his other eye is hidden behind a black leather patch. He says you should see the looks he gets when people hear the song, then stare at a real, live one-eyed former Saskatchewan rancher/bull rider.

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“I’m a pirate, all right,” he says. “You gotta have some laughs because that’s what living’s all about.”

Laughing comes easily to Whitlow, especially these days. He is back where he loves to be, around the animals that have torn him to pieces, gored his iris and left him near dead with a swollen brain. You’d think being next to such beastly assassins would terrify Whitlow. It doesn’t.

He works now for Bar C5, a ranch in Lac La Biche, Alta., that provides bucking horses and bulls for rodeos. Whitlow’s job is to look after the bulls, ensure their well-being and one day place them at the Calgary Stampede as rodeo stock. He’s also been a judge at pro bull riding events in Saskatchewan and even ridden a couple in practice to see if he still has it.

Should he ride again after everything that’s happened to him? He grins and answers, “I haven’t retired.”

Maybe not, but he’s come awfully close to being permanently retired, as in buried. At a 1999 rodeo in Arizona, a bull reared back and stuck one of its horns into Whitlow’s left eye. It took doctors six hours to reconstruct all the fractured bones in Whitlow’s face. Little more than three months later, he rode at the Calgary Stampede. The other cowboys nicknamed him Patch.

Two years later at the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Edmonton, another bull reared up and knocked Whitlow for a loop. As he lay unconscious in the dirt, the bull danced all around him but never stepped on him. Still, with bleeding in the brain, Whitlow was put in a coma. A nurse told his parents that sometimes patients with brain injuries come out of their coma in a week or two and sometimes they never do.

Whitlow started coming around in 14 days. Once recovered, he left Alberta and bought a ranch in Mistatim, northeast of Saskatoon, only to get busted up again. This time it was a poorly placed bale of hay that fell from a high stack and landed on Whitlow’s back, shattering 50 per cent of his L1 vertebrae. His wife found him lying on the ground. He was in the hospital for five days and fitted with a brace.

Two years after that, Whitlow rode a bull after a rodeo in Saskatoon. He and his wife were splitting up; his ranch and 80 head of cattle were taking up all his time, and things were just getting too complicated. So he stopped riding and sold the ranch. But he couldn’t stay away from bulls.

“It’s amazing,” says Greg’s father, Brian Whitlow, a former bull rider and member of the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame. “Bulls are his connection with his fellow riders and everyone he’s grown up with. He knows so many people and he’s always been real determined.”

It was Whitlow’s personal connections that led him to his new job and the chance to be back among the bulls at 38. He has no immediate plans to ride again, but insists he keeps himself in shape because, well, who can say what the future holds?

“Why tempt fate?” you ask. “Why even think about riding another bull?”

He responds passionately: “It’s what I know. I wouldn’t trade it for anything – all the good friends I’ve made, all the places I’ve been. I don’t care to see a hospital any more, but the loss of my eye? It’s a price and that’s part of it.”

Maybe his father explained it best. When told by doctors in Edmonton that a CT scan of his injured son’s brain had shown nothing, Brian replied, “Well, I could have told you that.”

Greg cracks up again when he hears that story. Life’s not supposed to be easy and when the tough times come, you have to laugh a little, sometimes a lot. The father understands how that is.

“Every Halloween, Greg dresses up as a pirate,” Brian says. “I’m glad he’s around bulls again.”

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