NEW ORLEANS – Earlier this season, Kyler Oliver very nearly called it a career.
Even though he’s only 23, it would’ve been hard to blame him.
In April, he got bucked off, landed on his head, and broke his neck – though doctors suspect he’d actually broken his neck last January and had been riding through it. When he attempted to return to competition, he got bucked off by a practice bull, landed hard on his shoulder, separating it and breaking his collarbone.
Oliver returned for the 2022 PBR World Finals and the PBR Team Series, going 2-for-12 for the Kansas City Outlaws in limited action. Then, at the Unleash The Beast season-opener in Tucson, Arizona, he was stepped on and broke four ribs.
“For a long time, it was just terrible,” Oliver said. “It was one thing after another. I went back to framing for my grandpa, building houses, and talking to him, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore. Every time I get on, it’s like I get hurt, and I’m just so tired of being hurt all the time.’”
But Oliver kept going to work, kept his body moving, and eventually got loosened up and started going to bull ridings again.
Lately, we’ve been seeing the Kyler Oliver that he’s always known is in there.
He’s ridden three of his last four bulls, including a 2-for-3, fifth-place showing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last week and a gritty 86-point effort on Ninja Cowboy in Round 1 of the PBR Union Home Mortgage Invitational in New Orleans on Friday night.
After nearly being bucked off early in the ride, Oliver righted himself and survived a judges challenge to place ninth in the round.
“I thought he was going to go right,” Oliver said. “I put my rope so far in the middle – normally, with a Brazilian rope, you kind of put it off to the side. So when he went left, I thought, ‘Oh, great, cool, this is going to be good.’ But then I remembered like halfway through my first move, I was like, ‘Man, my hand is so far in the middle, I hope it doesn’t kind of screw me going into my hand.’
“It felt really good. Kind of got me down inside one time, but luckily, I put my rope so far in the middle that all I had to do was kick loose and kind of pull a little bit, and it got me right back in the middle, and then he pulled me back the other way. And honestly, I should’ve hustled a little bit harder for a few more seconds to get through that whistle, so the judges didn’t have to do the replay and stuff. But I knew I got the score. So it was really fun, and I’m glad to get another one down.”
This ride was one he easily could’ve given up on, but he has the mental fortitude not to quit before he hits the ground.
“I think I’ve kind of always had it in me,” Oliver said. “My uncles, they all made sure to instill a strong, tough mindset. When I was trying to chicken out or not be tough, they would tell me about it, and they’d give me some crap for it. And that was a good thing because they wanted me to be tough, and they knew where I was going. I had to be as tough as possible, or else you’re never going to make it in this world. So I owe a lot to them, my grandpa and everyone around me that was so tough and showed me how to really do it.”
Toughness has taken on a new meaning since his neck injury. Though he’s well clear of the neck brace, wearing it forced him to take a step back, and he admits that things still aren’t the same.
“You can’t do anything with a neck brace,” Oliver said. “I tried to for the first little while, just do my normal stuff at home – you know, work on whatever I needed to – and then my neck would just hurt so bad, and I’d have to lay down forever for it to feel better. After I got out of the neck brace, I had those same problems with it. Still, if I do too many pull-ups or something and really, really try to push through it, I’ll have a headache for like 20 minutes and have to really relax my neck. So it was tough coming back from that.”
While Oliver is still on the road back, he’s now feeling as good as he’s ever felt.
“Just believing in myself,” he said of what’s working for him lately. “It took a little while coming back off that neck injury to get feeling good again. I was kind of nervous for a few of them and wondering if everything was going to feel right. Then I got a couple rode, and it all felt good again. I haven’t felt this good my whole career at the professional level yet. I finally feel like I did when I was at the amateur shows, showing up feeling like there’s not a bull here that can throw me off.”
Oliver will put his hot streak to the test in Round 2 in New Orleans on Saturday. Fans can watch Round 2 and the championship round on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.
And don’t worry – he’s not planning on retiring any time soon, instead returning to his gold-buckle aspirations.
“The goal is always to be the top bull rider in the world at the end of the season, be No. 1, and that will forever be my goal every season,” Oliver said. “But I know I’ve had a really rough start to this season. I’ve only been to about half the events, and been hurt at a few of them, went through a dry spell, fell off a lot. And luckily, I’m in a spot now where I’m not on that bubble about to get cut. So my main goal is just to keep climbing up the ladder, see how high I can get – hopefully Top 10, Top 5. I know I’m capable of it. I just need to string a lot of rides together.”
Photo courtesy of Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media