British Columbia

After 15 concussions, Quesnel cowboy takes his final ride

Matt O'Flynn says the suicide of friend Ty Pozzobon made him re-examine his own concussion history and the risks of bull riding.

Matt O'Flynn says the death of friend Ty Pozzobon made him re-examine the risks of bull riding

Matt O' Flynn, 28, pictured here, says he's retiring from bull riding after learning how repeated concussions may have led to the suicide of good friend and fellow rider Ty Pozzobon. (submitted)

In an alternate universe where cowboys don't get concussions, Matt O'Flynn's rodeo career would never end.

"I wish I could ride bulls until I was 90," he says, speaking from his hometown of Quesnel.

Quesnel bull rider Matt O'Flynn has been a bull rider for 20 years. (submitted)

But this weekend, the 28-year-old will saddle up one last time at the Bull Riders Canada final in Lloydminster, Sask., following through on a decision made in a moment of mortal reckoning brought on by the suicide of friend and fellow B.C. bull rider Ty Pozzobon.

"I was reading an article about Ty done one year after he passed...and I just knew at that second I had to quit," said O'Flynn. "I just started to cry and I don't consider myself an emotional person."

O'Flynn and Pozzobon first met riding junior steers on the B.C. rodeo circuit and both grew to become full-time professional bull riders. Pozzobon reached the major leagues of the sport, but in January 2017, the 25-year-old took his own life in his hometown of Merritt. 

Concussion related depression

The death made little sense until the Pozzobon family revealed he had been suffering from concussion-related depression related to the numerous head injuries he had sustained in his career.

post mortem revealed Pozzonbon had CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain, a condition that has also been detected in deceased football and hockey players who experienced repeated head trauma.

CTE can alter brain function. Common symptoms are loss of memory, cognitive ability and personality changes.

15 concussions, maybe more

The story was a wake-up call for O'Flynn, who figures he's had at least 15 concussions over his career.  

His first response was to make a pact with travelling mate Lane Cork, also a bull rider from Quesnel.

"As soon as we figured out what was actually part of the reason that Ty committed suicide, we went from taking three days off after a concussion to taking over a month off every single time," he said.

Matt O'Flynn figures he's sustained at least 15 concussions in his bull riding career. (submitted)

"We talked about it and said we're going to make a commitment to each other as buddies to say something if it needs to be said."

Remarkably, O'Flynn has no lingering symptoms from all those concussions, which commonly manifest in headaches, irritability and light sensitivity. 

But typical of the injury, he started suffering them in increasing frequency — four this year alone — making retirement the smart thing to do knowing the next one could be the game changer. 

"​If I hit the ground hard enough now on my butt, I'll get knocked out," he said. "So maybe I can get away from this with 15 concussions and still have all my wits about me."​

Besides all the concussions, O'Flynn has twice sustained severe facial injuries that required reconstruction surgery. (submitted)

The decision to retire is bittersweet but it helps that there's a new life waiting that doesn't revolve around rodeo.

O'Flynn and a brother have just taken over the family roofing business from their retiring father. And he's engaged to be married next June. 

On Saturday he'll climb aboard his last scheduled ride, a bull named Sweet Baby Ray. If things go well, O'Flynn will advance to the championship round Sunday which would make for a most fitting farewell.

Whatever happens, he leaves with no regrets, a sense of gratitude, and the memory of a friend in his heart.

"I feel very much that if it wasn't for Ty, I wouldn't have had this realization to take a step back and say maybe this isn't worth my life, especially how good my life is right now," he said.   

"But I wouldn't trade any part of this — the concussions or bashes over the last 20 years ... It's been amazing."