MISSOULA — Bull riders are accustomed to blocking out terrible thoughts.
Payton Fitzpatrick of Polson is especially good at it, which may explain his uncanny consistency in the rodeo arena.
Just months after suffering small fractures and torn ligaments in his leg after falling off a bull in Kalispell, the 25-year-old is back at it. He's chasing his third straight Northern Rodeo Association amateur yearly championship and he's off to an impressive start, with three wins in the last two weeks.
"I really had been struggling, going to a few rodeos before June and I fell off quite a few," said the newlywed, who won in Forsyth and Opheim last weekend. "Then we got things clicking again. I'm always thinking about the next one, so once I get something accomplished I'm fired up for just a minute and then I'm on to the next one."
Fitzpatrick's ultimate goal is to make a living as a professional. It's a hard life on the road with fresh bumps and bruises each week, but he's determined to do whatever it takes, even if it means thinking small in 2020.
"This is kind of a goofy year with the COVID going on, so it makes it hard on a guy to travel out of state," he said. "My original plan was to go out of state and maybe pro rodeo all over the country.
"This year I'll hit what's close and save up. Then if the COVID deal is cleared up and the rodeos are going strong in the fall, I'll probably hit the road and possibly see how the winter goes, maybe take a run at the NFR."
There are just enough rodeos going on in Montana this summer to keep Fitzpatrick engaged. He's traveling with his brother Grey, who is also a bull rider, to compete in a rodeo in Harlowtown on Thursday. Then comes two pro rodeo stops in Killdeer, North Dakota, and then Ennis on the Fourth of July.
"The atmosphere at a rodeo is just so great to me," he said. "I can get in a rut like anybody else working. Boy, there's something about bull riding that you can't really find anywhere else."
Fitzpatrick gives a great deal of credit to a man behind the scenes, Ryan Woirhaye of Darby, who has provided him with sponsorship money since late last summer. Every little bit helps, including money for gas to travel from one end of Montana to the other.
"All these rodeos are pretty small we're going to right now, but I'm super thankful for every one of them," Fitzpatrick said. "I just like to be getting on a bull."
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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