- Associated Press - Sunday, March 23, 2014

DALLAS (AP) - Fabiano Vieira had hoped to take home the $1 million prize at the Dr Pepper Iron Cowboy V challenge. But now the bull rider was leaning against the chutes at AT&T; Stadium, clutching his right arm, his face contorted and ashen.

The event’s medical director, Dr. Tandy Freeman, had advised Vieira not to ride tonight, lest he aggravate a recently dislocated shoulder. But the cowboy showed up anyway.

Each time Vieira whipped his free arm around to help him balance atop a bull, he felt his shoulder popping in and out of position. Now, after two bull rides, the pain had grown too strong, so he drew a line across his throat to indicate he was pulling out. Two trainers accompanied Vieira, still wearing his chaps, boots and spurs, off the arena floor.

Freeman, 56, a Dallas-based orthopedic surgeon, has spent the last 20 years caring for athletes who have traditionally shunned medical care. In a sport that prizes toughness, admitting to pain does not come naturally. And many athletes can’t afford to be sidelined by injury; they depend on the competitions to earn their living.

But Freeman and the doctors and trainers he works with - many of whom are volunteers - have won the athletes’ trust. As a result, rodeo is starting to close the gap with other professional sports when it comes to injury prevention and treatment, including concussion management.

Still, virtually every event requires Freeman to negotiate the tricky territory between what a rider wants to do and what his body can safely accomplish.

In the training room, Freeman, wearing a black Western hat, jeans, a denim shirt and black cowboy boots, pulled up a chair opposite Vieira and looked him in the eye. The rider would need to take at least two weeks off, said Freeman.

“If it don’t hurt, let me come back next weekend,” said Vieira, 31, who is from Perola, Brazil, and, as a top bull rider, makes his living off the sport.

“You try to ride next week, you’ll be back in the training room,” said Freeman, urging Vieira to ice his shoulder the first week and start physical therapy the following week.

This time, Vieira agreed, shook Freeman’s hand, thanked him, and walked off toward the locker room.

“Not all physicians relate to what these guys do,” Freeman told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/1deqckp) one afternoon from his office at Dallas’ Texas Orthopaedic Associates, where autographed photos of celebrity bull riders hang on the walls.

Rodeo is one of the most dangerous organized spectator sports in the world. Among its seven traditional events - which include steer wrestling, bareback riding and barrel racing - bull riding comes with the most injuries. Its injury rate is 10 times greater than football and 13 times greater than ice hockey, according to one of the few published studies on the subject, a 2007 study in the International SportMed Journal. Riders risk severe head injuries, lacerations, paralysis and death each time they get on an animal.

Who could blame a doctor for encouraging an injured cowboy to pursue a safer career path? But Freeman’s approach resonates much better with athletes: He does what it takes to help riders return to competition as quickly as possible.

Tandy understands what we’re needing to do,” said Scooter Nolen, 46, before mounting a horse and lassoing a steer at the Allen Event Center last fall. “He has a great rapport with everyone, and pretty much everyone in the rodeo - he’s their doctor.”

Cody Lambert, a retired champion bull rider, remembers when cowboy-doctor relationships were less harmonious. When he was a teenager, he avoided the training room at all costs. Even with a broken tailbone, he walked by medical staff two days in a row without asking for help.

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