PUEBLO, Colo. – Sean Willingham has been wavering back and forth for the past year about whether or not he should retire as a professional bull rider, and the 15-year veteran has finally come to a conclusion.
The 36-year-old announced on Monday that 2018 will be his final season after discussing it over with his wife, Kayla.
“I am just old,” Willingham said before laughing during a phone interview with PBR.com “I have been riding bulls for a long time. Man, it ain’t easy. That is for sure. Bull riding is all I have ever known since I was 15 years old. I live, breathe and sleep it. It is hard to realize I am going to give it up.
“The PBR has grown so big, it is hard for us older guys that has been doing it for so many years. Your body just can’t handle the grueling sport that it is for so long. It definitely is a hard decision. I just felt like I have been getting hurt a lot these past 4-5 years. I haven’t been around the Built Ford Tough Series because I have been hurt.”
Since last qualifying for the PBR World Finals in 2014, Willingham has battled a laundry list of injuries that have included a dislocated hip, broken neck and a torn left groin.
Prior to 2015, Willingham had qualified for every World Finals since 2003 except for 2012, but the veteran with 322 PBR Premier Tour events, 351 qualified rides and eight victories on his resume hasn’t competed on the PBR’s biggest tour since September 11, 2015.
He also has bucked off 16 consecutive bulls on the PBR Premier Tour before being plagued by his injuries.
“I didn’t have much success,” Willingham acknowledged. “That was another deciding factor for me. I don’t want to go to these events and not win. That is not in my frame of thinking. I don’t want to show up and get beat every weekend. If I can’t compete to win, I don’t need to be there.
“I guess (after 2018) I will be a normal person, get a job and raise two kids (Lani Michael and Conlee). That is my life now. My kids. I want to be able to play with them when I get old. I don’t want to be broke down and crippled when they are getting older because they are going to want to do stuff.”
Regardless, Willingham believes he has one more good year left in him before hanging up his bull rope forever.
After missing eight months last year recovering from surgery on his left groin, Willingham nearly qualified for the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour Finals – coming up 15 points shy of qualifying for the PBR’s equivalent of a playoff game for the World Finals in 2017.
Willingham believes he is finally, truly healthy for the first time since before he broke his neck in 2015.
He quickly realized when he returned in late August that he was nowhere near the shape he needed to be in if he wanted to ride the rankest bulls in the PBR.
“I think I was just trying too hard and my body wasn’t really ready for it,” Willingham said. “I was out eight months and I still barely missed the Velocity Finals and had a chance to make the World Finals.
“I was a lot more out of shape than I thought I was.”
Willingham has spent the last three weeks vigorously training at the gym, as well as doing daily Insanity workouts, in hopes of getting in good enough shape to make a run at qualifying for one last PBR World Finals.
The Summerville, Georgia, native is making his 2018 season debut this weekend at the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour Frontier Communications Rumble in Huntington, West Virginia.
“My main focus is to make the PBR World Finals one more time,” Willingham said. “In my mindset, I should be able to finish in the Top 35 in the world. God willing, and my body holds up, I know I can still compete with those guys. Now winning a world title may definitely be out of my reach these days. I don’t like to think about it. Realistically, those young kids’ bodies are more healthy and they bounce back quicker. The previous world champion proved that this year.”
There are two primary goals Willingham has set for 2018.
The Summerville, Georgia, native wants to ride in front of his home state crowd one final time when the PBR’s Premier Tour returns to Duluth, Georgia, on March 10-11.
“That is my No. 1 goal,” Willingham said. “To ride in my home state one last time. I really do believe I can still win and compete with those young guys. As bad as I know people want me to go other routes, I am not going to take the easier route. My goals have always been to ride against the best. I have been one of the best and I feel like I am one of the best. That is kind of my mindset. I am here to win as much money as possible this last year.”
Willingham then also wants to ride inside T-Mobile Arena, which he has failed to do since the PBR moved its World Finals to the state-of-the-art building on the Vegas Strip two years ago.
“I want to ride in that arena,” he concluded. “I want to make the PBR World Finals one more time. That has been my goal since my last Finals. I have missed it the last three years. It has been a struggle to get back, but when I am healthy it seems like I have been able to compete and win. It is just keeping my body healthy. That is my main goal.
“I definitely want to go out on top, who knows what the year brings. This may be the best year I ever have. I don’t know. Nobody knows. Only time will tell.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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