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Dustin Monke / Forum Communications Co., Published July 14 2012

After near-death experience, reigning champion rides again

Dickinson, N.D.

Camren DeCoteau remembers almost everything leading up to the moment that put him in a coma.

On July 20, 2011, DeCoteau did what he had done countless times before.

The reigning North Dakota state high school bull riding champion stepped into a chute and calmly set himself atop the bull. He gave a head nod, watched the chute gate open and held on tight.

This time, however, he never heard the eight-second time limit buzzer.

“I just remember hitting the (bull’s) horn. Then I was gone,” DeCoteau said. “I hit the horn and that hit the lights on me.

“They said if I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I would have been dead.”

DeCoteau, a 2012 Halliday High School graduate, returns to the National High School Finals Rodeo this week, almost a year after the near-fatal accident that put him in a four-day medically induced coma but did not shake his spirit.

The NHSFR begins today at the Sweetwater Athletic Complex in Rock Springs, Wyo. DeCoteau is scheduled to ride in the Tuesday evening and Thursday morning performances.

Lori Fredericks, DeCoteau’s mother, said she fully intends to hold her breath for eight seconds every time her son gets on a bull. All she hopes is that he doesn’t have a repeat of what happened last year.

“It’s a long eight seconds, that’s for sure,” Fredericks said.

The night he was injured, Fredericks said DeCoteau and his bull were not in sync. As the animal attempted to buck him off, its head swung up and back, connecting with DeCoteau’s head. Once DeCoteau was bucked and in the dirt, the bull trampled him for a moment before being chased from the arena.

DeCoteau suffered skull fractures in 10 places and shearing of blood vessels near his brain, causing bleeding. Fredericks said doctors told her the vessels were sheared by whiplash and the blunt-force trauma of her son’s head connecting with the bull’s head and horn at a high rate of speed.

“The very first night, we didn’t know what was going to happen, if there was any brain damage, how much brain damage there was, or if he was even going to come out of it,” Fredericks said. “The first night was the scariest. After that, it got a little bit better.”

To make matters worse, DeCoteau had suffered a slight concussion after being bucked earlier in the day while competing in the morning performance.

“It dazed me pretty good,” he said, adding he never lost consciousness. “My parents wanted me to go to the hospital, but I said I was alright. I decided to get back on that night.”

By July 23, Fredericks said her son began to regain consciousness. His condition improved greatly over the next two days and he returned home July 25 after five days in the hospital.

Weston Hartman, a 16-year-old from Mandan, N.D, who rides bareback broncs and bulls, is good friends with DeCoteau and watched his ill-fated ride at the NHSFR last year. He said seeing his friend lay unconscious at Campbell County Memorial Hospital in Gillette, Wyo., was scarier than the ride that put him there.

“You didn’t expect him to be in there that long,” Hartman said. “You just expect him to have a concussion and he had a lot more injuries than that.”

DeCoteau said he remembers nothing from his time in the hospital, saying the last thing he remembers from the rodeo was his final ride.

“I remember waking up at home. I don’t even remember the drive home,” DeCoteau said. “I woke up at home and kind of forgot all about nationals and my mom said, ‘You’re not riding anymore.’”

DeCoteau, about as hard-headed as the bull that knocked him out, didn’t take those words to heart.

A little over a month later, he was on the back of a bull at an amateur rodeo in Fort Totten, N.D.

“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty scared,” he said with a laugh.

He hung on for just under eight seconds before being thrown to the dirt.

“I just kind of stood there for a second. I didn’t even run,” DeCoteau said. “I walked away from him as he was chasing me all the way back. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve done.”

Neurologists cleared DeCoteau to ride bulls at North Dakota High School Rodeo Association events just in time for the spring high school season that begin at the end of April. He spent the fall team roping, an event he had never tried until then.

“That was something new for us, for the whole family,” Fredericks said with a laugh. “Usually we just throw the gear bag in the trunk and we’re off to the rodeo. Now we had to get the horse and the trailer. You learn all new things.”

DeCoteau got his only win of the year – a 73-point ride – at the spring opener in West Fargo on April 28. He logged a 70-point ride the following day.

DeCoteau said he is coming into this year’s NHSFR with a completely different outlook. Last year, DeCoteau felt he wasn’t riding his best leading up to nationals, which he said contributed to what happened the day he was injured.

“I got to thinking too much that I won state and that it’d be easy to go down there and win nationals,” he said.

Monke is the sports editor for The Dickinson Press