It wasn’t Aaron Baxter’s first rodeo, but his strong performance in front of his hometown fans recently has provided a huge boost to the South Side bull rider’s budding — and unlikely — career.
After his nearly eight-second ride at the Professional Championship Bull Riders World Tour Finale last month in the northwest suburbs, Baxter received an invite to the well-known Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, which showcases black cowboys, in April in Memphis.
The invitational was canceled by rodeo officials because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bull riding officials said what Baxter did in staying atop a bull for just three-tenths of a second short of the eight-second industrywide standard is a feat similar to a minor-league baseball player hitting a home run in his first appearance in the majors.
He he got a “special invite” to compete on his home turf from the Professional Championship Bull Riders (PCB), a well-known pro circuit, even though he hadn’t taken part in the circuit previously. And he was invited to compete again.
“This is why what he did was so impressive,” said Sinhue Mendoza, a PCB spokesman. “Many of the bulls on tour for Professional Championship Bull Riders are close to or over 2,000 pounds and considered very good bulls that are hard to ride for the famous eight seconds.”
Baxter, a South Shore resident, said he literally dreamt of his clutch performance at the Sears Centre Arena.
“Anytime I went to sleep, I was on a bull for eight seconds,” said Baxter, 26. “I hopped off and got a belt buckle with my name on it. And it was at a real big arena. So for that to happen in Chicago and in Hoffman Estates, it was a dream come true.”
The Bill Pickett rodeo is named after the black cowboy who invented “bulldogging,” a technique that involves wrestling a steer by grabbing its horns and pulling it off balance so that it falls to the ground. If Baxter would’ve done well there, he could have been able to continue competing on the advanced pro circuit.
While Baxter was disappointed when got word of the cancellation, he said he’s making contingency plans by riding in rodeos that are closed to the public.
Sean Gleason, PBR’s CEO, released a statement last week saying scheduled rodeos will take place without fans in attendance.
“It’s disheartening because so many people will miss out on a great opportunity,” Baxter said. “It’s all about everyone’s safety.”
How does an African American kid who grew up far from the countryside become a full-time bull rider?
As a toddler, he loved horses and was particularly moved one time when he saw two black men riding horseback at the South Shore Cultural Center.
“From what my mom was told, the two men walked up to me and told my mom that I was going to be a cowboy one day,” Baxter said. “I sat on the horse and rubbed its hair. It’s one of my first memories.”
While many of his classmates at South Shore’s St. Philip Neri Catholic School dressed up as their favorite Bears or Bulls players, Baxter took some ribbing for wearing cowboy garb for the school’s talent/fashion show.
“It taught me to have thick skin, but at the same time, it was also something I embraced because it helped me to realize just how unique I was,” Baxter said.
He graduated in 2012 from Mount Carmel High School and worked as a basketball coach at St. Philip Neri and Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, as well as at a GameStop.
He took part in his first rodeo in 2016, the Backyard Bulls and Barrels Bash in Lowell, Indiana. Baxter started to attend rodeos across the country in an effort to meet bull riders. He said other bull riders took him under their wing after they saw how serious he was about making a living riding bulls. He was invited to the PBR Academy, a training ground for would-be riders, in the summer of 2018.
“They actually took me in and took pride in the fact that I was a black kid from the inner city and I liked their sport enough to show up, dress like them and want to be like them,” he said.
‘You can’t cheat’
Baxter greatly increased his riding last year. He also trains horses at Timberland Ranch in Chicago Heights.
If all goes well, this could become a lucrative profession. Bull riders can compete in as many events as they want. Top-tier bull riders can earn endorsement deals and make six figures annually.
Baxter said the best lesson he has learned about bull riding is not to think too much when he’s atop such a huge creature, taking part in what he calls the “purest” sport of them all.
“You can’t cheat,” he said. “The moment you cheat, you get hurt. It’s a 2,000-pound animal that has a mind of its own. He doesn’t know the rules of the game except to throw you off and to come get you after you hit the ground.”
He admitted riding such an unpredictable animal “sounds crazy,” but he loves it and plans to continue.
Bob Sauber, PCB’s CEO, said he’s eager to watch Baxter’s career progress after his showing last month.
“[Baxter] showed grit and toughness, which is what the city of Chicago is known for, and we’re excited to continue to watch him grow in our sport,” Sauber said.