It’s like watching film of a historic, long-ago event that has been seared into the memory.
When you Google Tag Elliott’s near-fatal bull ride in 2007 at the Days of ’47 Rodeo, you want to somehow freeze the video, streak back in time and alter history.
Nobody deserves what happened to Elliott, a good-natured teenager from Thatcher, Utah, who had just embarked on his dream of being a professional rodeo cowboy.
In an instant, however, Elliott’s world changed.
He was so badly injured that those who first reached him feared he might not make it to the hospital.
Wouldn’t it be something if Elliott qualified for this year’s National Finals Rodeo?
Five years ago, the Days of ’47 Rodeo started well enough for young Tag Elliott, who drew a monstrous white bull named Werewolf.
Bull riders love to climb aboard the top animals in the sport because the bull’s ability and reputation gives them the best chance to impress the judges and post a high score, which translates into bigger paychecks.
One year earlier, an up-and-coming cowboy named J.W. Harris, who would eventually become a three-time world champion, scored a 96 aboard Werewolf at the Reno Xtreme Bulls competition.
So, just two days after his 19th birthday, Elliott seemed positioned to continue an outstanding rookie season on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour.
Then, chute No. 2 at EnergySolutions Arena sprang open.
In one powerful stride, Werewolf gathered himself and leaped high into the air, throwing Elliott off balance. When the bull hit the ground, Elliott lurched forward, just as Werewolf threw his head back. The result was a violent head-to-horn collision that shattered the right side of Elliott’s face.
The crowd fell silent. Bull fighters and medical personnel rushed forward. After crashing to the ground, Elliott didn’t move.
Chris Higham, a ambulance driver who wasn’t on duty that night, saw what happened and instinctively ran to the floor of the arena to see if he could help.
A co-worker who was working the rodeo saw Higham and tossed him the keys to the ambulance.
“He told me to go get it — quick — because they were going to need it,” Higham said.
Elliott’s situation was perilous.
“I don’t think many people — right then — thought he was going to make it,” Higham said. “To this day, I haven’t seen anything that bad.”
After emergency first-aid was administered, Elliott was gently placed into the ambulance, which Higham drove to LDS Hospital.
“It was pretty gut-wrenching,” Higham said. “I remember, when we were pulling out of the arena, one of the chute bosses was off to the side — puking — because of what he’d just seen.”
Elliott doesn’t remember anything about the incident and has only scattered memories of the hours leading up to it.
He recalls arriving in Salt Lake City from Cheyenne and meeting his parents, who brought him some fresh clothes.
He remembers watching traveling partner Dustin Larsen compete one night before his ill-fated ride.
Finally, he recalls having a brief conversation at the arena with bareback rider Kaycee Feild and his Hall of Fame father, Louis.
“Nothing at all, really,” Elliott said. “I just woke up, three or four days later.”
Before regaining consciousness, Elliott underwent 10 hours of reconstructive surgery. It was needed because every bone on the right side of his face had been broken, including his jaw and eye socket. Most of his teeth had been knocked out. An artery had been severed.
“I’ve had a few fatal [auto] accidents,” Higham said. “This looked worse than any of them.”
Eventually, Elliott was sidelined for 20 months. Procedures related to his injuries are ongoing. Still, the former wrestling star at Bear River High School never considered quitting.
“There wasn’t much change in my thinking,” Elliott said. “This is my job. This is how I make a living. There wasn’t any question whether or not I’d get on [a bull] again. It was just a matter of [doctors] telling me I could.”
Elliott credits his family, especially his mother and father, for helping him return to bull riding: “They’ve been 100 percent supportive. They said, ‘If you never want to get on another one, that’s fine. But if you want to, that’s perfectly fine, too.’ ”
Elliott resumed a limit schedule in 2009. He finished among the top 30 in the world in 2010 and 2011, when he earned nearly $85,000.
This season, however, has been his best since the injury.
After winning Xtreme Bull events at Austin, Texas, and Pocatello, Elliott has already earned $35,875. He ranks 15th in the world standings.
“It’s going all right,” Elliott said. “Not as good as you’d want. But it’s close, I guess. I feel pretty lucky about it. We’re staying healthy and I’ve drawn some nice bulls at the right time.”
The top 15 money-winners in each event qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in December, meaning Elliott finds himself in contention for his first postseason trip to Las Vegas.
“It’d be cool,” he said. “It’s everybody’s goal — what everybody has in mind. It’s not going to be the biggest heartbreak in the world if we don’t make it. But it’s definitely something you work toward.”
The Tag Elliott File
Event • Bull riding
Born • July 22, 1988 in Brigham City
Current residence • Thatcher, Utah
Career earnings • $148,566
College • Southern Idaho (equine studies)
Career • Won Extreme Bulls (Division 2) at Austin and Pocatello this season. … Placed 30th in the 2011 world standings with earnings of $34,155. … In 2010, earned $50,680 and placed 28th in the world after winning at San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; San Dimas, Calif.; Grace, Idaho; and Herriman, Utah. … Missed 2008 season and participated on a limited basis in 2009 after being severely injured at the 2007 Days of ’47 Rodeo. … Utah state high school champion in 2006.
Personal • Single. … His father, Steve, was a professional bareback and bull rider. … His brother, Zach, is a bull rider who finished 33rd in the 2009 world standings. … Graduated from Bear River High School, where he wrestled, qualifying for the state meet four times. … Enjoys hunting and helping work the family cattle ranch. … Favorite movies: Clint Eastwood Westerns.
This week’s PRCA rodeos in Utah:
Days of ‘47 Rodeo • 7 p.m.
June 19, 20, 21, 23, 24
Maverik Center, West Valley City
3200 S. Decker Lake Drive
Pioneer Days Rodeo • 7:30 p.m.
June 19, 20, 21, 23, 24
Pioneer Stadium, Ogden
668 17th Street
Fiesta Days Rodeo • 8 p.m.
June 20, 21, 23, 24
Fairgrounds, Spanish Fork
475 South Main Street