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Death of bull rider Ty Pozzobon spurs push for standardized concussion protocols

Ty Pozzobon, centre, was plagued by concussions throughout his bull-riding career, which eventually led to a bout of depression that proved deadly. Now, his family and friends are taking the lead in ensuring the sport becomes safer for riders and better about addressing head injuries.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ty Pozzobon's death is about to create something he never got in life: a standardized set of rules and procedures that could have tracked his concussion problems and prevented him from riding bulls too soon after he had injured his brain.

Sadly, Pozzobon's multiple concussions led to a deadly bout of depression that ended with him taking his life on Jan. 9. But to ensure their friend, the 2016 Professional Bull Riders Canadian champion, did not die in vain, rodeo cowboys current and retired, along with bull fighters and officials, have been rethinking their sport when it comes to safety and concussions.

In the works are concussion protocols that would deal with issues such as baseline testing and return to play and be in effect at all rodeos held in Canada. Several cowboys, and Luke Pozzobon, Ty's father, have had discussions with Brandon Thome, the Calgary-based athletic therapist who travelled the circuit for 10 years as a member of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team. (The team parks itself at rodeos and offers medical assistance to those who need it. It doesn't have a bull rider's background data when it comes to concussions.)

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"We [at Thome's Prairie Therapy clinic] have no jurisdiction, but we're definitely involved with it," Thome said of the medical guidelines being put together for Kyle Rock, operations manager for the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association.

Rock, a former bareback rider, understands what's at stake. As rodeo's governing body, it is up to the CPRA to lead the way on crucial matters. He's hopeful the Rodeo Sport Medicine Team can produce the right practices to be presented to the CPRA's board of directors in February.

"I'd like the Sport Medicine Team to come to our annual general meeting and present what they have so it can be used this year," Rock said. "That's our goal."

In Canada, different organizations are in charge of different rodeos, meaning each rodeo has different concussion practices in play, if any at all. In a sport known for its danger, bull riding has been slow coming to grips with head injuries. Helmets are mandatory at PBR events, which occur in the United States and Canada. And yet some argue the helmets are of little protection against a bucking one-ton monster. For the PBR's prime events – the Built Ford Tough Series – competitors must take a neurological test before each rodeo and, if they're wobbled or knocked out cold, they have to take it again.

Asked about protecting its bull riders, PBR issued a statement saying it "invests in medical personnel at every event we produce, we are working with experienced organizations to develop advanced protective equipment, and we engage with riders regularly in new research and development initiatives."

At the Calgary Stampede, the usual precautions are taken – an ambulance is always standing by with paramedics and an experienced rodeo doctor. But, in the end, it's the bull rider or cowboy who decides whether he's good enough to keep competing.

"The PBR has its own way. PBR Canada has its own way. Bull Riding Canada has its own way. The CPRA has its own way," Thome said. "We're talking to the CPRA so that there can be one way [to deal with concussions]."

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Luke Pozzobon and his wife, Leanne, have been active in the push to have their son's death heighten an awareness of concussions and the damage they can wreak. The Pozzobons donated tissue from Ty's brain to the University of Washington, where researchers have been working on a number of projects, including the design of a new football helmet to reduce the impact of hits to the head. The NFL, Under Armour and GE have already awarded $750,000 (U.S) to the project.

Pozzobon said Ty visited more than a dozen concussion doctors and specialists in search of how to treat a brain that had taken some brutal poundings. In 2013 at a PBR event in Louisville, Ky., Pozzobon was hand-strapped aboard Carolina Kicker and seemed to be doing well. Then the bull pitched him off to the left and, while Pozzobon was falling to the ground, Carolina Kicker hit him again, knocking out Pozzobon. Bull fighters were able to draw the bull away before it stepped on Pozzobon.

He wasn't so lucky at a 2014 PBR event. Pozzobon took Boot Strap for a ride only to be tossed then stomped on by the bull. The force of the animal's hind legs cracked Pozzobon's helmet in half. The bull kicked Pozzobon in the head while he lay motionless on the infield dirt until he was pulled to safety.

Then there was his ride aboard Mark 10:27 when Pozzobon was hit and flipped by the bull then hit and flipped again before heading for cover. There was also the rough ride on Rock River Red. Pozzobon was flung off and stomped on for his troubles. He was able to get away on his own and ride another day.

"He went to Connecticut [to the University of Connecticut Health Center for neurological research]," Luke Pozzobon said. "He'd had a couple of major [concussions]. We all talked openly about it. He was pretty good at listening. He stayed out of [bull riding] seeing doctors who could help him."

Tanner Gerlitz, a friend of Pozzobon's, is one of the bull riders pushing for concussion protocols to be in place for the coming season, even if the document is not 100-per-cent completed. The biggest stumbling block he sees is being able to enforce the new rules, given how notoriously stubborn all cowboys are when it comes to resting injuries.

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"Someone has to be able to say, 'You have to sit out,'" Gerlitz offered. One suggestion is having bull riders agree to that when they register for a rodeo. "We want something good to come out of this."

Luke Pozzobon feels the same way. Ideally, he believes it should be science, through a blood test, that determines if a bull rider has had a concussion, not someone making a judgment call. (Researchers at University of Western Ontarioin London, Ont., recently came up with a blood test that can determine if a person has been concussed. The test examines chemicals in the blood stream and has come with a 90-per-cent success rate.)

"It's still a human call and that's where the hang up is," said Luke Pozzobon, who insisted his son's death shouldn't be used to denigrate bull riding. "We're not trying to kill the sport. We want to help the guys who love the sport because Ty loved it, too."

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