Bennett bucks the odds

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Junior bull rider Conner Bennett must stay on a bull for six seconds for a qualifying score.  For the past two months, the 13-year-old has participated in rodeos in Hilliard and Branford, learning the skills for the sport he loves.  “I’d like to go professionally,” Conner said....

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  • Conner Bennett takes his turn as a junior bull rider during a rodeo recently. The Hilliard teen began bull riding a couple months ago. He dreams of becoming a professional bull rider one day. Photo courtesy of Mark Belton
    Conner Bennett takes his turn as a junior bull rider during a rodeo recently. The Hilliard teen began bull riding a couple months ago. He dreams of becoming a professional bull rider one day. Photo courtesy of Mark Belton
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Junior bull rider Conner Bennett must stay on a bull for six seconds for a qualifying score. 

For the past two months, the 13-year-old has participated in rodeos in Hilliard and Branford, learning the skills for the sport he loves. 

“I’d like to go professionally,” Conner said. “It’s been my dream ever since I was little. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. My dad did it and my papa did it.”

His grandfather, Ronnie Hodges, retired from rodeo riding. Still, he and Conner’s dad, Krist Bennett, assist the teen before and after the bull and rider exit the chute. Mom Randi Bennett is also there to lend support.

“It’s definitely a different sport,” she said. “Like, my son plays other sports. He’s played basketball and my daughter (Natalee) plays softball. There, it is very patriotic. Nobody’s going to be kneeling at a flag. Nobody’s going to be kneeling at the national anthem there and it’s kind of a united brotherhood with them.” In addition, son Lyle serves as quarterback for the Hilliard Flashes.

Conner and the other guys work together at riding events and build friendships outside the arena.

“You can borrow anybody’s stuff,” Conner said. “They’ll let you do that. Everybody helps each other and everything. It’s not like a competition against each other. It’s more of you and the animal than you and the other person.”

The season runs year-round, with riders on bulls once each night during the two-night rodeos. The risks are evident, considering that junior bulls weigh anywhere from 600 to 800 pounds. Conner wears a helmet and vest for safety. Spurs assist his balance. 

Despite suffering at least two injuries, Conner is willing to risk it. He recalled the most recent incident. 

“I was riding and he bucked me off and I got thrown underneath him and he stepped on my leg,” he said. 

Conner is ready for the challenge to succeed. 

“It takes a lot of work that you’ve gotta put in,” he said. “And you can’t be scared of the bull. You’ve gotta worry about staying on and not falling off. Because you’re never going to stay on if you’re worried about falling off.” 

He looks up to his bull riding heroes like Jess Lockwood, who was just 18 when he became the youngest PBR World Champion Finals winner in 2017. He also follows two-time world champion and veteran bull rider J.B. Mauney. His longtime hero is the late Lance Frost. The 1987 world champion of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association died while bull riding in 1989. 

Conner relies on his training as he works to move to the senior level, where bulls can weigh 1,500 pounds or more. 

“Just hold on tight,” he said. “That’s what I do – try to hold on and all the steps that I’ve learned and try them. I’ve got to stay up on my rope and stay off my (back) pockets and keep my hand up. But don’t put it too high. If you put it too high, then you’ll fall off. You want to try to keep your back straight, but keep, like, your pockets off of him. Don’t sit on him. But keep your back straight and don’t put up your elbows. You’ve got to pretty much sit on your hands.” 

Conner multitasks during rides.  

“You got to stay up on your ropes. I’m worrying about that. Then I’m worrying about how high my hand is, because you don’t want your elbow above your head. And you’ve got to keep your knees dug into and your spurs dug into (the bull).”

If that seems like a lot to juggle inside the arena, Conner has already shown his mettle in other areas of his life. When he was 6 years old, he was diagnosed with Common Variable Immune Disorder, a chronic condition that prevents his body from fighting infections effectively. 

About every two weeks, he receives treatments to boost his immune system. The infusions will continue for the rest of his life, according to his mom. His condition has remained stable for more than a year. 

Nearly three years ago, he was diagnosed with Hemophagocytic Lymphohistocytosis, also known as HLH. The inflammatory syndrome led to his hospitalization of more than two months. 

“Pray for Conner” signs were posted in yards and establishments. Those in support wore zebra-print T-shirts with the phrase “Zebra Strong.” The T-shirt included Joshua 1:9, which is Conner’s favorite Bible verse. 

The teen doesn’t let his medical issues get him down, including the arthritis he battles on a regular basis. 

When he became ill, doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to participate in contact sports, but Conner’s bucking the odds each day. 

“He’s doing this,” Randi said. “He works out every single day, trying to build strength.” 

She is equally proud of his bull riding accomplishments. 

“To know that three years ago, we didn’t know think he was going to walk out of the hospital, even the doctors didn’t,” Randi said. “And then now, every time I see him on one – the courage and the strength is just amazing.” 

Conner encourages other kids to stay strong to attain their dreams. 

“Just keep fighting and find something that you’d like to do and do it,” he said.