Brandon Dunn is a fighter.
In fact, he made a career of it. Throughout his teens and 20’s Brandon was a professional bull fighter. He started out fighting high school and college rodeos, and then worked his way into the PRCA ranks and as a bullfighter in the PBR arena.
A horrendous auto accident changed it all in 2003. Though he appears confident to those that know him, Dunn has spent the past 11 years filled with doubt and pain. Saturday night, in the last event of the final Pioneer Reunion Rodeo performance of 2014, Dunn met — and overcame — his fears in the form of a freestyle bullfight.
“Ever since I was really little, all I ever wanted to do was fight bulls,” Brandon said. “It was just part of who I am.”
His uncle, Rex Dunn, a professional bullfighter, fueled that fire by making him the “product tester” when he would go buy stock to add to his herd of fighting bulls.
“He hauled me to every ranch and nook and cranny set of pens all over the country,” Brandon recalls, laughing. He admits it is easier to laugh looking back at age 40 than it was when he was 13. “He would just stick me in the pen with this bull and tell me, ‘See what he’s got.’ So I’d give it my best shot.”
Down the Rodeo Road
Brandon fought his first bull for money when he was 14. His parents, Chuck and Jackie, thought he would get run over and quit, but it only fueled his fire. He was literally hooked on the sport and couldn’t wait for his next gig.
By his early 20s, Brandon was earning a living as a bull fighter, traveling to rodeos all over country with the best of the best in the sport – Rob Smets, Roach Hedeman, Jimmy Anderson and several others.
“The camaraderie we all had was great,” Brandon says. “It’s been said before, but there is just nothing like rodeo family. When you are 1,500 miles from home, you know they have your back no matter what.
“And they are there to pick you up from the emergency room at the hospital so you can haul rear trying to get to the next rodeo,” he says, laughing.
Brandon suffered his fair share of casualties in the arena, including broken ribs, broken arms, broken legs, gored in the jaw, broken shoulder and numerous concussions. He would usually wind back up in the arena long before the doctors said he could.
Making It Big
At the height of his career, Brandon was being cheered on at home by his wife, B.J. and daughters Haley and Laramie. They went to rodeos when they could, but the girls were still too young to do much traveling.
“When I started with the PBR in 1998 they got to go with me quite a bit, and that was awesome,” Brandon says.
While Brandon was ranked as high as 11th in the PRCA Bull Fighting competition, fighting in the PBR was a dream come true for him.
“At a rodeo, you might fight 10 bulls a night and have to travel several hundred miles to the next rodeo,” he explains, “but at a PBR event, for three nights in a row you are gonna fight 50 bulls, and 49 of those want to take you out.”
“It’s an awesome adrenaline rush,” he says. “But you don’t walk into that arena thinking about anything other than how you are going to take care of yourself, the cowboys riding and your teammates fighting bulls with you.”
Brandon fought in the PBR most often with his buddies Smets, Hedeman and Anderson. “There were never any questions between us,” he says. “We just always knew we had each other’s backs and we could count on each other to do our job. And we did. It was intense and amazing all in the same moment.”
While bull fighting is an incredibly physical sport, Brandon says the sport is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental.
“Fighting bulls is a mind game,” he relates. “There is a huge fear factor you face when you step in there to fight.
“You have to have a lot of self-discipline to maintain the confidence it takes to walk into that arena knowing you can take the challenges the situation is going to bring,” he adds.
Called to Serve
God was always a big part of Brandon’s personal life and leaning on his Savior for guidance and wisdom helped him navigate a lot of paths in his life. While he always shared his faith with those around him, in the fall of 1998 Brandon felt a call to serve God at a higher level.
“God just really put it on my heart that he was calling me into ministry,” Brandon says. “But my earthly self was fighting it a little bit. I told God, ‘I will do what you want, but I am really enjoying my career as a bullfighter.’”
While still fighting bulls at rodeos and PBR events, Brandon became an ordained minister in 2000. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He felt the calling, but he also needed to provide for his family so he kept fighting.
In late 2002, Brandon heard God calling him to minister again, but he didn’t know exactly what to do about it. Then, as God had provided answers so many times before, Brandon received a call and was offered the youth pastor position at the First Baptist church in Waurika, Okla., 15 miles from home. He accepted the position in January 2003.
Never the Same Again
The Dunns lives were forever changed on April 15, 2003. Brandon’s uncle Rex was critically injured by one of his fighting bulls on his ranch and was air lifted to the ICU unit at the hospital in Wichita Falls. Brandon, B.J., Haley and Laramie all went to go visit Rex in the hospital. Halfway through their 25 mile trip home that night, a drunk driver crossed the dividing line on the highway and hit the Dunn family head on.
It was a fatal crash.
The driver of the other car was killed instantly. Brandon, in the driver’s seat, had the steering wheel, the engine and many car parts slicing through is body and was thought to be dead. B.J. was conscious but severely injured with her seat belt ripping into her body and the car’s dash crushing her. In the backseat 4-year-old Laramie was suffering from internal wounds from the seat belt’s force during the crash. Beside her, 7-year-old Haley was afflicted with fatal wounds.
Brandon, B.J. and Haley were taken to Wichita Falls hospitals. Laramie was taken by ambulance to Wichita Falls and then airlifted to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. Haley was pronounced dead the next morning. But her parents didn’t know right away, as B.J. was undergoing multiple surgeries and after surgery Brandon was in an induced coma.
The roll of tending to Laramie in the hospital and handling Haley’s services fell on Brandon’s parents. Davis Funeral Home in Henrietta made arrangements to have Haley’s casket brought to the hospital and wheeled her into their hospital rooms so her parents could say good-bye to her. The doctors brought Brandon out of his sedated coma so he could see her one last time.
“One of the worst parts of it all was to not get to be there for my Haley,” Brandon says. “We couldn’t even go to her funeral. We watched her funeral on a video tape three months later. That was really hard to take.”
Long Road to Recovery
Laramie was released from the hospital within a week. The severity of Brandon and B.J.’s injuries had them in different specialty hospitals so they couldn’t see each other. Across the aisle from Brandon’s bed in the same ICU ward, Rex was fighting for his own life. Brandon remained in a coma for two weeks while doctors allowed his body to do some undisturbed healing.
Uncle Rex was released from the hospital after several weeks. B.J. was released from the hospital after three weeks and has since undergone multiple surgeries for crash related injuries. While his back and leg were broken, his hip torn out of socket and the ball of his hip broken off, Brandon’s most severe injury was a perineal tear that split his body in half from his legs upwards. He had multiple surgeries to pin his body back together. He spent three weeks in the hospital before being transferred to a rehab unit. After two months Brandon was finally released to go home.
But it wasn’t his home. It was his parent’s home. Both Brandon and B.J. needed constant care and couldn’t live independently.
“It was a sad sight,” Brandon says. “We had His and Her hospital beds set up right there in my parent’s living room. We had to have help to do everything. It was so frustrating.”
“However, I will say B.J. and I had some of the best talks we have ever had during that time,” he admits. “When you are bed ridden and can’t move, there isn’t much else to do. It was all a horrible experience but our marriage was really strengthened by that time we had – recovering side by side.”
One of the hardest parts of their recovery, Brandon says, was having 4-year-old Laramie wait on them. “She had to grow up way too fast,” he says. “While my parents were our main care givers, she would do anything she could for us.”
Despite intense physical therapy, the doctors said Brandon would be in a wheel chair for at least a year. After eight months Brandon decided he had enough of the wheel chair and was done with it. He still couldn’t use one leg and was pretty clumsy on crutches as his internal injuries where plaguing him.
“I would do anything to get out of the wheel chair,” he says. “Being so dependent upon people was so hard for me. They would have to drop what they were doing to give me a ride to therapy or a doctor appointment and I just hated that.”
Picking up the Pieces
Brandon and B.J. both continued to recover from their injuries. In 2004 Brandon was provided the opportunity to start his own church, Western Heritage Christian Church in Dean.
“I was really thankful for the chance to share my love for God,” Brandon says of the position. “I knew he put me there for a reason and even through the wreck and recovery and everything, I never lost faith in him. Some things were really, really hard to understand, but I always had faith He was there for me.”
In 2004, Brandon and B.J. were miraculously blessed with the birth of a son, Brendall, who proved to be such a bright spot in an otherwise dark time. However, as time went on Brandon started to realize that while he was recovering from his physical injuries, he was not emotionally recovering well at all.
“It is really hard to be a pastor of a church, to face your congregation every Sunday and throughout the week and be a leader for them when you are hurting so much yourself,” he says. “I felt like I needed to hide that from them and be strong for them. I felt like I wasn’t being a good pastor, or husband, or dad if I let people know how broken I was inside.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know how you are handling this so well. You’ve been through so much but you are just doing amazing.’ I wanted to scream, ‘NO! I’m not doing well at all. I feel awful inside.’ But instead I would just smile and nod and tell them ‘Thank you.’ In the end, I was deceiving them and myself and it felt really bad,” he says.
Pulling Back the Curtains
Brandon continued his charade for 11 years. Then, in the spring of 2014 he decided he needed to change. He needed to change his heart and his mind.
“I don’t know if it was because I was turning 40 or what, but I just looked at myself and said, ‘Brandon – what have you done for the last 11 years of your life? It has been filled with a bunch of ‘I cant’s.’” he says. “I had so many goals I had set early on in my 20s that I wanted to accomplish when I was in my 30s and I hadn’t touched any of them. An opportunity would come up, but I would say I couldn’t do it because my body wasn’t physically capable, because I couldn’t make time, or whatever excuse I could come up with. I started looking around and so many people were accomplishing ‘my’ goals. Why wasn’t I doing that? I tried to blame God, but really, I knew I was the obstacle in the way of my success.”
Brandon’s mind, which he used to train to stay sharp and focused to overcome obstacles before him, had become his own worst enemy.
“It was like the devil had crept into my mind and was holding thoughts hostage that I didn’t need to have; that I couldn’t have if I was going to have a productive life,” he says. “I decided it was time to take my life back.”
Brandon was ready to take the bull by the horns again. He set a goal for himself to fight one more bull. For Brandon, it wasn’t a comeback story, it wasn’t even about the bull, but more what the bull represented – all the frustration, anger, resentment that he has built up over the years. He was ready to fight it all head on.
He set a personal deadline of doing it six months from his decision date in mid-March. Brandon developed a plan to do just that. He consulted with his doctors and rehab specialists to see what he could do to get himself back in shape. He visited with counselors to address the mental issues he was facing. His battle was so personal, he didn’t visit with many people about it – but he worked on it every single day.
B.J. was very supportive of his goals and all he was doing to accomplish them. “She has been my number one cheerleader,” he says.
He started training his body and his mind to be in top condition in every possible way. He worked out every day with professional trainer’s guidance. He ran, he lifted weights, he did every kind of workout imaginable, from pulling a tractor tire across an arena to sprinting 40-meter dashes with professional football players.
He went through his daily activities and eliminated anything that caused negative thoughts.
“From the kind of music I listened to, to the television programs we watched at home, we only feed ourselves positive things,” he said before Saturday’s fight. “I might not be so strict about it someday, but for now, we are training our thought processes and we don’t want any negative influence.”
The Clay County Pioneer Reunion is Brandon’s hometown rodeo and on the humid Saturday night, Sept. 20, the crowd at Tex Rickard Arena was at standing room only. The excitement was palpable as Brandon entered the arena and in less than a minute his performance took rodeo fans — many who are friends and family — through a full range of emotion.
Twice Brandon found himself at the mercy of the bull and with him fell the cheers of the crowd. He rose both times with quick work from his cohorts in the arena and finished strong.
“It’s been 11 years since I have fought bulls. Even though the bull kept getting me, I needed that brawl to clean the junk out in my heart. I was able to leave it all in the arena,” said Brandon. “God held my hand and allowed me the tangible opportunity to clean my heart out. Everything, I mean everything, was left in the arena that night.”
And get up Brandon Dunn did. He got up and embraced the victory he received in that arena. In front of a standing ovation crowd, his son Brendall, daughter Laramie and wife B.J. ran out to great him in the middle of the arena in an embrace that was felt by everyone present.