In basketball and bull riding, time is everything.
A basketball player is granted ten seconds to advance the ball over the mid-court line before receiving a violation. In bull riding, a rider attempts to stay atop the bull for eight seconds.
For Austin Branagan, a sophomore from Lowell, Michigan, he’s familiar with both. A forward on the GC men’s basketball team, Branagan grew up playing basketball and football from a young age. But in the past year, he has tapped into a newly discovered passion influenced by years spent on his family farm: bull riding.
“It’s kind of like the lifestyle I grew up in,” Branagan said. “Because I’ve raised Texas Longhorns my whole life. Growing up on a farm and being around them is just my hobby.”
Raised around cattle, Branagan has always wanted to explore bull riding, but his busy schedule accompanied with his parent’s sceptisim of the danger in bull riding kept him away. That is, until he turned 19 and no longer needed a parent’s signature on the waiver form.
Now, Branagan has entered the world of bull riding with no plans to bow out any time soon.
When asked what he likes about the sport, he said, “The adrenaline rush and just being on top of a powerful animal. I don’t know how to say it, it’s the accomplishment of being able to do something at that level, I guess.”
Branagan’s friend, Marcus Schussler, introduced him to bull riding last summer, taking him down to a barn near his Michigan home and drilling technique.
“The majority of riding is based on squeezing your legs together and trying to stay vertical on the bull,” Branagan said. “You don’t want your butt sitting on him, because then he has more force and opportunity to buck you off.”
But as Schussler warned him from the start, “It’s not about if you’re going to get hurt, it’s about when you’re going to get hurt.”
Branagan just didn’t expect the first injury to come the night before his bull riding rodeo debut. Atop the bull, Branagan rode for several seconds before falling to the ground behind the rear of the bull.
“He came down on my ribs with his two hoofs,” Branagan said. “So I broke two of my ribs and collapsed my lung. I was out for a week.”
After suffering the substantial injury in August, Branagan returned to Goshen for basketball preseason, his teammates soon learning about his sideline hobby and the reason he sat on the bench for the initial practices during fall 2019.
Branagan likes to keep basketball and bull riding separate, but attributes his increased aggressiveness on the court to his recent experience with bull riding.
“I just play a lot more physically, and sometimes it doesn’t help me because I get in foul trouble,” he said. “But a lot of times it does.”
Jon Tropf, head coach of the men’s basketball team, also commented on this aspect of Branagan’s game.
“Austin certainly has taken his game to a more aggressive and physical level this year,” he said. “I think the term for how he plays could be described as ‘Bull in a China Shop.’”
Tropf and Branagan often joke about his interest in bull riding. Branagan offers to teach his coach, Tropf refuses.
But Tropf said that Branagan’s story is also just one example of GC student athletes finding balance in their life outside the sport.
“While bull riding is not something you’d typically expect from a basketball player, if anyone gets to know Austin they would instantly think ‘oh that makes sense,’” Tropf said. “I mean the guy walks around campus in cowboy boots.”
In his GC apartment, Branagan keeps a steel barrel attached to a sawhorse on hand to practice. The contraption looks much like a wooden, stationary horse, minus the head. Branagan admits the barrel along with the ropes and large bull horns hanging in his room often render quizzical looks from his friends.
“With the barrel, I’m just building muscle memory and strength in my legs for that type of movement,” he said. “So when I’m on the bull, it’s just instinct.”
Branagan hopes to make a return to bull riding this summer, still looking for that first experience of riding a bull in a rodeo and the long-awaited promise of adrenaline.
“You’re in the shoot and then eight seconds later you’re done. If you make it to eight seconds,” he said. “That’s the goal.”