"That's the scaredest I'd ever been," says Jerome Davis, recalling his first-ever bull ride (he was 11). "It might have lasted two or three seconds; that's how long it took for me to come down after he threw me up." Unbulled—but uncowed—the North Carolina sixth grader dusted himself off and two months later won his first $67 in prize money. Plenty more has followed. In 1995, Davis became the first rider from east of the Mississippi to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's bull-riding crown. And last year, with $317,000 in prize money (and another $100,000 in endorsements), Davis found himself sitting pretty, at the top of his game.
First person: "All my life I knew I was going to be a bull rider.... I couldn't imagine a bigger rush than a 2,000-pound bull beneath you, going wild."
Second opinion: "What he's done for the sport east of the Mississippi is amazing," says Randy Bernard, CEO of the Professional Bull Riders circuit. "We see huge numbers coming out to our world championship in Las Vegas, and all of them are Jerome Davis fans."
Résumé: Won $25,000 in prize money as a high school senior and a rodeo scholarship to Odessa College in Texas. Now stars on the Professional Bull Riders tour, which plays to sell-out crowds in 50 cities coast-to-coast.
Vitals: Born in Colorado Springs but reared in rural Archdale, N.C., where he lives in the white-frame farmhouse that was once his grandfather's. 5'11" and 155 lbs. Single, but lives with his childhood girlfriend Tiffany Brady, 22, a sometime rodeo barrel racer.
Worst moment: Stomped by a bull in 1992, Davis suffered six broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a punctured lung, and spent five days in intensive care. Returned to competition three months later.
Occupational hazard: Rodeo groupies. "They call them buckle bunnies," says Davis in a reference to the silver belt buckles champs take home. "I stay clear of them. Tiffany doesn't like them."