BILLINGS — Tanner Byrne had been knocked down before. It comes with the job.
But this was different.
This blow didn’t hurt him physically.
This was spiritual, a deep gut punch into his soul. And he didn’t know if he would ever get back up.
The tall, red-headed bull rider from Canada had just started his 2017 Professional Bull Riders season in the United States. He was coming off eighth- and 15-place in the PBR world standings and was making a name for himself as one of the world’s top bull riders.
On Jan. 9, 2017, Byrne’s life, and the lives of so many others, changed forever.
Byrne got the news that his countryman, his best friend, “We’ve been riding together since we were 16. We came up through junior rodeos together,” he said, was dead.
Ty Pozzobon had died at the age of 25. It was ruled a suicide. An autopsy revealed that Pozzobon, a PBR Canadian champion, was suffering from the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease that was the result of numerous concussions.
The news rocked Canada’s tight-knit rodeo and bull riding community.
“He was one of those guys, when they came into a room, was friendly with everybody,” remembered Byrne during a break during the mid-April PBR event in Billings. “Ty was easy to talk to … he was one of those guys who got along with everybody.”
It forced Byrne to look inward.
“When something like that happens, it makes you look deeper into your own life,” he continued. “Things got into my head. When you’re riding, you have to be there 100 percent. I questioned if I should even be there (at events).
“It made me realize the risks in what we’re doing. I would see guys get knocked out and wonder what’s going to happen to them 10, 15 years from now. Now it actually happened to somebody I knew. Somebody died.”
Pozzobon’s death hit hard and hit home every time Byrne was with his wife Megan and 2-year-old daughter Layla.
“It’s a very selfish lifestyle,” said Byrne. “And I started thinking of others if something happened to me. What would happen to my wife and daughter?”
Byrne struggled in the arena. He suffered a broken clavicle, broken collarbone and torn groin. “There’s no question the injuries came from me wondering what I was going to do,” he said quietly. “You’ve got to have confidence to do this.”
He would recover from one injury and return to the arena. But instead of being hopeful, Byrne was angry. His emotions bubbled over during The American in Arlington, Texas. “Just being there pissed me off,” he said. “It’s just a bad feeling in your gut.
“It made me step back away from bull riding. It took a long time to love it again.”
Byrne finished 101st in the 2017 PBR world standings.
But even in the darkness, there was light.
Friends and family knew Pozzobon was battling depression and other effects from CTE, but not the severity.
“Concussions are just part of our business,” Byrne said. “Get a concussion, leave the arena. Get knocked out an extended period of time, go to the hospital. Then you get released and drive back home.”
Talking about mental health issues is not part of the cowboy code.
“There is a certain toughness associated with our culture,” said Byrne, steeling his voice to make his point. “We didn’t look very tough coming down the aisle with his casket.”
To honor their friend, and help others, Byrne and fellow bull rider Chad Besplug created the Ty Pozzobon Foundation.
The foundation’s goal is: “To protect and support the health and well-being of rodeo competitors inside and outside the arena.”
The foundation wants competitors to not only focus on their physical well-being, but also their mental well-being.
“We want to provide a support system for rodeo people,” said Byrne. “Give guys an avenue, somebody to talk to if needed.
“We wanted to make a triumph out of tragedy.”
This past year, the foundation provided medical services at some PBR events in Canada. In the future, the goal is to provide medical services at more PBR and rodeo events across Canada. Last year, initial fund-raising brought in $30,000. Now the board of directors wants to expand that help medical care to junior high, high school and semi-professional rodeo events.
“We’re trying to help educate the guys,” said Ted Stovin, who handles the foundation’s merchandising and is on the board of directors. “We’re seeing changing attitudes. Guys are looking at themselves and know what happens with respect to their injuries.”
The foundation’s websites, sells hoodies, hats, T-shirts and small patches, that say, “Live like Ty,” or have “Pozzy 23,” on them. The PBR Canadian bull riders wear the “Pozzy 23” patches on their protective vests. The 23 is where Pozzobon finished in the 2016 PBR world standings.
Stovin said the first purchase from the United States was by reigning PBR world champion Jess Lockwood of Volborg.
Stovin added the group was also putting together videos to help competitors.
Byrne’s return to bull riding was slow. His competitive fire flared during the Global Cup in Edmonton last fall.
“I liked hanging around all those young guys,” said Byrne, himself only 25. “By the end of the year, I started healing up and thinking I could do it again.
“I wanted to go back in the game.”
As the PBR prepares for it summer break, Byrne is 23rd in the standings. He won St. Louis for more than $34,000 and also finished sixth at Anaheim, California.
He admitted to mixed thoughts when riding again at the PBR’s highest level.
“Ty is still fresh in my mind,” Byrne said. “I was scared what it could do to me. But I wanted to come back and prove I can do this.”
And now he, and others, have some help along the way.