HENNESSEY, Okla. — When 17-year-old bullrider Nathan Hatchel puts on AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” he means business.
“This song pumps him up,” said his soon-to-be stepmom, Barbara Chartier, taking a video on the fence of the Hennessey Rodeo Arena before the gate was lifted Sunday. “Whenever we go to rodeos, I always make sure to ask them to play this over the speakers for him.”
And there are countless rodeos at national, regional and amateur levels. Nathan, a Hennessey High School senior, qualified as fourth in the nation for bullriding last summer at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyo. He also has a sponsorship with Tin Haul urban Western wear.
Nathan’s third ride of the day was Black Hawk — the 1,300-pound newest addition to the Hatchels’ personal herd of 5 bulls.
Chartier says she and his father, Craig Hatchel, have told Nathan not to overthink it and let the adrenaline kick do its job once he sits down on the bull in the chute.
“I just think to myself, ‘Don’t get my ass kicked,’” Nathan said, grinning, his braces showing.
And he means it literally. His boots are roped around his legs so they don’t fly off. Red gloves are taped to his wrists, clutching the resin-covered ropes to hold a grip. His cross necklace is visible beneath his red protective vest.
Minutes turn to seconds before his father swings open the gate.
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Black Hawk is a college-level bull, bought by Craig Hatchel two weeks ago to prepare Nathan for riding the more difficult bulls at college rodeo competitions.
The publicity of his national placing led to a full-ride scholarship to Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s rodeo athletics program. The scholarship will cover his tuition, books and travel expenses for all four years.
He signed the letter of intent Thursday at the high school, with the college’s head rodeo coach, Mike Visnieski, present.
“We’re really proud to have Nathan on board. He’s an accomplished bullrider and will have a positive impact on our team,” Visnieski said.
SWOSU’s men’s rodeo program ranks the second of 15 in the state. The team has placed first in the national championships four times in the last 30 years.
Nathan will compete in the Central Plains region, consisting of 20 schools in Oklahoma and Kansas, in 10 rodeos throughout the year. In June, the top three in each event and the top two teams go to the college finals in Casper, Wyo.
“I (didn’t) know how to put it into words,” Nathan said about the signing. “It felt like another stepping stone to my life. It felt like I was going somewhere.”
And that was back to the arena to practice more.
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Nathan first sat on a bull at 13 — later than most his age, he says. He later won his first buckle within that first year.
“I guess my dad never got me into it,” he said, but that didn’t stop the bullriding from continuing to run in the family. Nathan’s uncle and grandfather also rode bulls.
It’s a life de rigueur for a bullrider.
Every week, Nathan’s family and friends travel to a rodeo competition, anywhere within driving distance (last weekend, they were in Decatur, Texas). They practice bucking out every Tuesday or Wednesday (pushed back to Sunday because of last week’s winter weather). Before or after school, Nathan feeds the bulls, goes to the gym and rides his horses.
There isn’t much time for other hobbies, his dad says.
“He pretty much lives and breathes and eats this every day,” Craig Hatchel said. “That’s what makes it difficult to be successful. And it’s not a team sport. You’ve got to make yourself work out, make yourself practice. There’s no one gonna help you do it for you. It takes a lot of discipline.”
A friend asked him before he rode his first bull, Goose, “Did you pray?”
“Yeah, I prayed,” he said.
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“It’s a lot safer now with the protection they have. They didn’t have (protective) vests when I was riding. They got those right after I stopped,” said his father, who rode bulls until, he says, “I wasn’t making money anymore.”
That, coupled with injuries, work and children to take care of, took Hatchel out of the saddle.
The potential for injuries every time Nathan gets on a bull is enough for his dad to worry about.
“From day to day, you try not to think about it,” Craig Hatchel said with half a grin.
Chartier herself recounted one time at a rodeo, a bull bucked Nathan and then stepped on his back. He tried to get back up, crumpling back to the ground at first.
His vest ultimately saved him.
“He’s been stepped on, kicked, but he’s still going,” Chartier said.
Nathan lasts about 3 seconds before Black Hawk bucks him off.
“I could’ve done better. But that’s what he’s for,” he said afterward, packing his bags of gear.
There’s still more time.