By: Justin Felisko November 20, 2015@ 05:00:00 PM
- Willingham, who concluded 2015 ranked 48th in the world standings, continues his quest to return to the Built Ford Tough Series on Saturday night at the BlueDEF Tour event in Bakersfield, California.
- The 34-year-old broke his neck (C-7) and sustained torn ligaments in Billings, Montana, when Cowboy Up bucked him off in 5.28 seconds directly onto his head in April.
- Willingham went 9-for-46 in 18 BFTS events overall last season. His 19.57 percent riding average was the lowest of his career, as was his 48th place finish in the standings.
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PUEBLO, Colo. – Sean Willingham received a hard dose of reality when he returned to the United States last month following a seven-day cruise off the shores of Jamaica with his wife, Kayla.
Once he made it to American soil, Willingham turned on his cell phone in Miami and discovered an array of missed calls and messages from the PBR competition department.
Willingham unknowingly had a bull waiting for him in Louisville, Kentucky, for the 2015 BlueDEF Tour Finals.
To Willingham’s frustration, he didn’t expect to be awarded an alternate spot for the BlueDEF Finals after being so far down in the BlueDEF Tour and world standings, so he had decided to follow through on plans of taking a family vacation.
If he could have competed at the BlueDEF Finals, Willingham would have had another opportunity to qualify for the Built Ford Tough World Finals, which he missed this past year for only the second time in 13 seasons.
“That sucked for me,” Willingham said. “It was kind of frustrating at the time, but then I got to thinking I had several chances before, so I didn’t think nothing else about it. It is what it is and I am glad to be back this season.”
Willingham, who concluded 2015 ranked 48th in the world standings, continues his quest to return to the Built Ford Tough Series on Saturday night at the BlueDEF Tour event in Bakersfield, California. Fans can catch all of the action from Rabobank Arena on CarbonTV.com starting at 10 p.m. ET.
2004 World Champion Mike Lee, three-time World Finals event winner Robson Palermo and BFTS veteran Valdiron de Oliveira are also expected to compete.
Willingham says it is easy in hindsight to question going on the cruise, but he knew he needed to get away from everything and clear his head following a season in which he struggled to return from a broken neck and getting cut from the Built Ford Tough Series.
The 34-year-old broke his neck (C-7) and sustained torn ligaments in Billings, Montana, when Cowboy Up bucked him off in 5.28 seconds directly onto his head in April.
At the time, he had only ridden one bull in 21 outs and was 37th in the world standings. He dropped to 46th in the world before he returned to competition at the Laurel, Mississippi, Touring Pro Division event in July.
However, Willingham still couldn’t break out of his slump and finished 0-for-7 on the BFTS in three second-half BFTS events.
Willingham went 9-for-46 in 18 BFTS events overall last season. His 19.57 percent riding average was the lowest of his career, as was his 48th place finish in the standings.
The Summerville, Georgia, bull rider went a combined 15-for-74 at all levels of PBR competition.
“It sucks. I don’t like it,” Willingham admitted in Clovis, New Mexico. “Knowing I had a chance to make it to the Finals and I came up a couple 100 points short this year and is just frustrating for me. Not being able to ride. That is where I deserve to be at. I am definitely capable of it. I have shown it in the past how I can qualify being in the Top 35 in the world. There is no reason why I shouldn’t be there.”
Getting away from the sport, even if it did cost him a chance of qualifying for the Finals, was beneficial for the upcoming 2016 season.
“We were on a boat for seven days off in the islands having a good time,” Willingham said. “I have been needing that for a long time. We normally go once a year and we hadn’t been in a few years. I think we need that every once in a while to get away from the sport and everyone else and clear your head.”
Willingham was at one point within less than 100 points of the Top 35, which led to him beginning to fight his head a lot in 2015 as he tried to chase points to stay on the BFTS.
It seems like an easy task to avoid, but many riders along the BFTS cutline every year have struggled at times trying not get caught up with the points system.
“I was fighting my head to much,” Willingham said. “I think I got to within 80 points behind from being back on it and I think I was worried about the points system other than riding my bulls and letting the average take care of itself and getting points. I put too much pressure on myself I do believe. I wasn’t having fun. That is the main part of this. If you are not having fun doing this there is no point in showing up. Then it is just everything is going to be a mental game and you are not going to ride anything.”
It is why the question of retirement is one that Willingham doesn’t spend too much time fretting about.
He still believes he has a couple seasons left in the PBR, including on the BFTS.
“The drive is definitely there,” Willingham said. “Body wise I feel excellent. Being 34 years old I have to work out a little more then I used to stay in shape, but it is all worth it when you show up. As long as you are having fun and winning and covering your bulls, why not.”
A victory this weekend in Bakersfield would award Willingham an exemption for the BFTS season opener in Chicago on Jan. 9.
Paulo Lima, who is looking to win his third consecutive BlueDEF event this weekend, originally had the exemption for Chicago courtesy of his BlueDEF win in Clovis, New Mexico, but the PBR competition department has allowed Lima to use his exemption for the third event of the regular season in Oklahoma City seeing as Lima had already purchased a plane ticket to compete at the BlueDEF event in Oakland, California on Jan. 9.
Willingham is currently 0-for-4 this season on the BlueDEF Tour and Touring Pro Division.
He knows a strong performance on the BlueDEF Tour can essentially propel a rider to the 2016 Built Ford Tough World Finals on Nov. 2-6 at the state-of-the-art Las Vegas Arena.
There are a total of 195 world points available at every BlueDEF event.
“You can make the Finals just going to these deals,” Willingham said. “With this next month before the (BFTS) starts back, you can make your World Finals. Look how many points it took to make the Finals this year (641.25 points). You could seal your Finals qualifications by going to just these bull ridings.
“I am looking forward to it and I am ready to go.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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