DULUTH, Ga. – Sean Willingham’s eyes were bloodshot as he stood atop the shark cage inside Infinite Energy Arena four years ago.
Willingham had just gotten done riding C Note (88.5 points) for his first victory in his home state, and he did it despite getting less than a handful of hours’ worth of sleep that weekend.
The Summerville, Georgia, native and his wife, Kayla, had just welcomed their first child into the world two weeks earlier. The Duluth Invitational was the first event for their daughter, Lani Michael, and Willingham was trying to find a good enough balance between helping Kayla keep Lani comfortable and relaxed at night, while attending multiple PR appearances and trying to go about winning his eighth career event.
“I get a lot more sleep now than I did then,” Willingham said on Thursday with a laugh. “Maybe that is the key. Maybe I don’t need much sleep. Two hours here and there and I am good to go.”
The victory was Willingham’s last on the premier series, and it certainly was one of his personal favorites of his 16-year career.
“I remember my little girl was two weeks old and I wasn’t getting much sleep at all,” Willingham said. “That was her first bull riding and she was brand-new to the world. They had me busy running around doing PR as well. I was going back and forth to the hotel helping mama out with the little girl. It was definitely a special moment because she was brand-new, and I never won this event, and then I won the bull riding and everybody was there.
“That was what made it so special for me. My first child was a few weeks old and I was winning in my home state for her.”
Throughout the PBR’s 25th anniversary season, a major focus of the celebration has been around major victories, World Championships or big-time rides.
However, one of the more sentimental moments for a rider comes when they win in their home state.
Ryan Dirteater won in his home state earlier this year when he was victorious in Oklahoma City. A home state native has won a premier series event in his state 20 times since 1999.
“It was another highlight of my career for sure,” Willingham said. “It is one of the hardest things to do – win in your home state. Everybody is rooting for you and it has been a while since everybody has seen me, so I hope there are a lot of Sean Willingham fans there this weekend. I hope I do my part and ride my bulls and have a safe weekend and keep on rocking.”
Willingham is now hoping he can win a second Duluth belt buckle for his second child, Conlee, this weekend during the Duluth Invitational on Saturday and Sunday.
Fans can watch Round 1 exclusively on Ridepass beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET.
“My boy just turned two last week,” Willingham said. “It would be pretty fun to win another so they each have a buckle. One can’t have one that says Duluth winner. There needs to be two.”
Willingham announced earlier this year that he will be retiring at the conclusion of the 2018 season. This weekend is his first premier series event since going 0-for-3 at the 2015 event in Springfield, Missouri. He has bucked off 16 consecutive bulls on the premier series.
The 11-time PBR World Finals qualifier has drawn Slingin Tears (1-0, PBR UTB) for Round 1.
When he was making his retirement public, Willingham stated one of his primary goals was to make sure he was back on the 25th PBR: Unleash The Beast in time for the Duluth Invitational.
He seemed well on his way to riding full time on the Unleash The Beast after he won the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour event in Biloxi, Mississippi, back in December.
However, Willingham nearly broke his right leg one month later during the Denver Velocity Tour event when Grey Ghost trampled over him and hit his calf with his horn.
“I think I am cursed in Denver,” Willingham said. “I was definitely frustrated because I thought it was broke the next day. I was like you have to be shitting me. I was riding good. I was pretty positive I could keep riding like I was doing and I would be back on tour pretty quick.
“I guess it worked out good. I get to start back in my home state.”
Willingham tried to ride 12 days after Denver to no avail. In total, he missed five weeks because of the injury, which, according to Willingham, was diagnosed as a deep bone bruise.
He returned to competition on Feb. 10 in Greenville, South Carolina, and he went 0-for-2 in Hampton, Virginia, last weekend. Willingham is 2-for-5 in four events since the injury.
Willingham is 51st in the world standings and trails No. 35 Tye Chandler by 122.5 points. Willingham is 4-for-12 at all levels of PBR competition.
“I feel good,” Willingham said. “Everyone keeps asking me, ‘You are riding so good. Are you sure you are going to retire at the end of this year?’
“Well, I am not worried about retiring. I am worrying about performing as best I can for the whole year and not worry about the retirement at the end of the season. I try not to think about this is my last year. I try to go at it the same every weekend. This is my first ride instead of my last time getting in there.”
What if he were to win in front of his home state once again this weekend, though?
Would he call it a career and walk away as a winner?
No thoughts of a walk-off retirement?
“No. Hell no,” Willingham responded. “No. I doubt it is going to go down that way. I do like the attitude of the win part, but retirement no.”
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