BILOXI, Miss.— There were two riders in New Town, North Dakota, two weeks ago that were competing in a playful slap-boxing contest inside the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour locker room.
A few feet away, longtime PBR veteran Sean Willingham smiled and looked on.
There was a time when he was that youthful cat in the locker room causing a raucous with the likes of two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney and Kasey Hayes.
Times may have changed and Willingham may currently not be on the PBR’s illustrious Built Ford Tough Series, but he still has the same love for the sport of professional bull riding that he once had when he was a 20-something bull riding son of a gun.
It is why he hasn’t thrown in the towel despite spending an entire season competing on the Velocity Tour and Touring Pro Division bull riding circuit in 2015.
He could have retired after this past season. A season in which he finished outside of the Top 100 for the first time in his career, but Willingham still believes he has what it takes to compete alongside the Top 35 bull riders in the world.
“I still love the sport,” Willingham said. “There is still a lot of unfinished business for me to finish my career. I didn’t want to go out not making the World Finals again. So here we are. It is a new season so let’s see what happens.”
Willingham is set to ride at this Saturday’s Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour event in Biloxi, Mississippi, at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum at 7 p.m. CT. Other top riders tentatively scheduled to compete include 2004 World Champion Mike Lee, 2015 PBR Rookie of the Year Kaique Pacheco, 2016 PBR Brazil champion Dener Barbosa, 2015 PBR Brazil champion Luciano de Castro and world leader Matt Triplett.
The Summerville, Georgia, bull rider went 19-for-59 (32.2 percent) at 36 events last season at all levels of competition. In fact, Willingham’s year wasn’t nearly as bad as his world ranking may present. Willingham was 13-for-34 at the Velocity Tour level with seven Top-10 finishes.
The problem was he only earned 65 points toward the world standings in those seven events.
“Well, I can’t really blame it on anything other than my riding ability,” Willingham said. “The ones I went to, I had plenty of chances to capitalize and get back on tour. Even though I had a close to 38-percent riding average for the year. I just could never put it together at one event to get major points to get me back I always finished Top 5/Top 10. Down there, you only get a (few) points.”
Willingham was very close to making a return to the BFTS this year before he pulled his groin in March.
The injury kept him out four months and he could never recover.
“I was pretty close to getting back on tour at the time,” Willingham said. “That sat me back in the main part of the season. I sat out and then came back to early and kept making it worse. I can’t blame it on anything. I had several chances to do my job and get back and it never happened. It never worked out.”
2017 has not started as well as he would have liked, but Willingham, who is 1-for-5 in three events, expects things to turn around soon.
Yes, he hasn’t competed on the BFTS since Sept. 2015, but the 35-year-old still believes he can make it back to the highest-level of professional bull riding.
Willingham has ridden on the BFTS and qualified for the World Finals in 11 of his 14 seasons. He finished a career-best fourth in the world in 2006.
“It is no fun,” Willingham said of not being on the BFTS. “I have never really been put in this position in my 13 years. I know for a good 10 years I was in the Top 35. This is the first time that I have been gone this long. I was gone for one time for a year. That was injury wise.”
After being serious, Willingham tried to make light of his situation.
“Well, some of the guys I traveled with are all retired and have been gone for a while,” Willingham said with a laugh. “At the same time, I like this crowd here. The PBR has a future coming up. These kids ride good. Once they get it all put together, you are going to see them all eventually. Hopefully I am right there with them.
Willingham later concluded, “Hopefully this will be the best year of my whole career and we will go out on top. Not to say this is my last year, by no means, but I am looking to go out on top.
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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