Mesa resident Kerry Jones suffered from a traumatic rodeo accident when he was 18 that left him paralyzed from the chest down — but that didn’t deter him from pursuing his passions in the arena.
Now 55, Jones fills his time by judging bull riding competitions from his wheelchair at venues across the Valley, including Hitching Post Saloon, Buffalo Chip Saloon and Roadrunner Restaurant and Saloon.
He also offers tips and advice to young riders on how to better improve their form.
A veteran cowboy, Jones is a living example of perseverance today.
“If there’s something that you want to do, no matter what it is, find a way to do it,” said Jones. “Find people that can help you do it. If you need help, ask somebody to help and find a way to make it happen.”
Jones was born in Wichita, Kansas, and moved to Arizona when he was 6 years old.
He started experimenting in rodeos three years later, practicing on steers and calves.
The 55 year old said he quickly fell in love with the sport.
“There’s an adrenaline involved when you’re sitting down to ride something that is around 2,000 pounds,” he said. “You get that adrenaline pump from either the danger or the competition aspect. For me, it was just the challenge of, ‘can I be better than this animal and the other guys I’m competing against?’”
Jones traveled across the state, accompanied by his father and four siblings, competing against Arizona’s finest.
Although rodeos can be both physically and mentally taxing, Jones said, he came out successful due to his dad’s unconditional support.
“You’ve got to be in pretty good physical shape, it’s probably the toughest sport out there because you don’t have the shoulder pads you do in football,” he said. “When you know you’ve got somebody behind you that is there to help you and point out some mistakes — it’s a huge boost through how you perform.”
But that all changed on March 7, 1982.
When Jones was a senior in high school he was gearing up for a Scottsdale rodeo in which he would be riding a bucking horse bareback.
A seasoned rider, Jones said nothing had prepared him for what was to come.
Jones was bucked off the horse, tangling his legs with the horse’s legs — driving his body straight into the ground head-first.
The teen broke C6 in his neck, dislocated C7 and pinched his spinal cord.
“I was awake and conscious the whole time, I remember it all,” he said. “It was one of those life events that you don’t forget.”
The road to recovery was long and hard, said Jones, but he never gave up hope.
At the initial time of his injury, he weighed around 170 pounds. Within a month and a half, he lost 40 pounds due to muscle atrophy.
Jones, who was doing physical therapy at the Good Samaritan hospital, said he was determined to get back in shape.
“There were a lot of things I enjoyed doing that I wanted to be able to do again and I knew if I didn’t get in better shape then I wouldn’t be able to do those things,” he said. “Once I got home, it was a matter of getting in a wheelchair and getting miles in. At one point, I was probably pushing 5 miles a day down the side of the road.”
While the cowboy said he never felt “depressed,” he struggled with overcoming the frustration of gaining his independence back.
But his family’s support helped him push through.
“Having to re-learn how to get dressed and feed yourself, for somebody that was as independent as I was before I broke my neck, was frustrating,” he said. “I had a lot of support from my family and friends and they would kind of test me because they knew I could do it and they believed in me.”
He added that, as a result, his injury has made him a more understanding and patient person.
Following the accident, the Kansas native said he hadn’t really considered getting back into the rodeo-scene until 1990 – when a friend and former world champion bull rider asked him to help out at his rodeo school.
Soon after, Jones started judging smaller bull riding competitions on a volunteer-basis, occasionally offering tips and support to riders when he got a chance.
Now almost 20 years later, he spends his time traveling around the valley for competitions in which he gets paid.
The quality of the ride is determined by the rowdiness of the bull and how well the rider matches the animal’s moves with countermoves.
Each rider can only use one hand and must stay on it for eight seconds.
“The rider needs to show he can be in complete control of that animal during the eight seconds,” said Jones. “So, sitting in a good, upright position and not hanging off to the side.”
Reflecting on his injury, Jones – who now has a wife and six kids – said he hopes that anyone who is in a similar position to him is to never give up hope.