San Luis Obispo — IF BEN LONDO'S game were football, he'd be as famous as Reggie Bush, the former USC running back who won last year's Heisman Trophy as the country's best college football player.
More famous, actually. Londo, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo senior, has won his rugged sport's equivalent of the Heisman for two years in a row, and is intent on winning it again this season.
And all Reggie Bush had to worry about was the occasional 250-pound human being coming hard at him.
During a recent practice session, Londo squatted and stretched, then surreptitiously kissed the St. Christopher medal dangling from his neck before lowering himself onto 1,500 pounds of seriously perturbed stallion confined in a bucking chute.
Londo was the all-around champion at the National College Rodeo Finals in 2005 and 2006, but the dun horse with the white face patch seemed unimpressed. As Londo's 170 pounds settled into the saddle, the animal shook and lurched with seismic violence; he kicked the metal sliding door behind him so hard the blows sounded like large-caliber pistol shots.
"Everybody ready?" Londo asked two teammates who controlled the chute gate leading to Cal Poly's rodeo arena.
The gate opened and the big saddle bronc exploded into the arena, leaping high and bucking so hard the tightly cinched saddle slipped toward his hindquarters.
"Whoa, that sucker's wired!" yelled Cal Poly rodeo Coach Tony Branquinho from atop the chute.
A mighty kick of the animal's rear legs and Londo was airborne, flipping headfirst over the stallion's arched neck. Down into the dust he went. The horse, as though to underscore a point, briefly trampled Londo for his hubris, then galloped off.
A few minutes later, Londo was back at the chute, pale cowboy hat askew, white western shirt streaked with dirt, eyes aglow. "Holy cow, that was a buckin' horse," he said. "There's no shame in gettin' bucked off a horse like that."
LONDO, an easygoing 22-year-old construction management major and dean's list student from Milton-Freewater, Ore., could serve as the exemplar of college rodeo, which, though largely unfamiliar to urban and suburban America, has been a mainstay on agriculturally oriented campuses since the 1930s.
Nowadays, 140 junior and four-year colleges belong to the sport's sanctioning body, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Assn. Cal Poly's program, of which Londo is the inspirational leader, is one of the nation's best, "in the top five," said Branquinho.
Cal Poly has won three national individual titles in the last two years. At the most recent nationals, last June in Casper, Wyo., Londo won his second consecutive all-around title, rodeo's most prestigious individual honor, awarded the competitor who amasses the highest combined score in two or more events. He finished fourth in saddle bronc riding and 27th in his other event, bareback riding. The Cal Poly women's team finished eighth overall, and the men's team ninth.
At the 2005 nationals, Londo won his first all-around title, and then-teammate Marcey Teixeira won the women's all-around honors.
The team's success is particularly noteworthy because of Cal Poly's relatively rigorous academic standards. Most of the schools in the intercollegiate association are community colleges, where entrance requirements aren't as stringent.
Londo, who has reddish blond hair and a scattering of pale freckles, is a compact 5 feet 8. For participants in the "roughstock" events -- saddle bronc, bareback and bull riding -- excessive height can be a disadvantage because it means having a higher center of gravity and being prone to more pronounced whiplash from the bucking animal.
Like most other college rodeo participants, Londo grew up around livestock, on his parents' cattle ranch, where he began riding at age 10. And, as with many others, rodeo is a family tradition. His father, Ned, competed both in college and professionally, even reaching the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR), the pinnacle of professional competition.
"Rodeo's been in my family for four generations," Londo said. "Growing up in the country, it's so related to the work we do every day. It's more than a sport. It's a heritage deal."
THE day after the dun stallion bucked him off, Londo took a break between classes and sat in the temporary building that serves as the rodeo team's offices to talk about the peculiar attractions of his sport.
"It gets my blood pumpin' just talking about it," he said. "Last night I was rolling over in my bed just thinking of getting on that horse again -- and riding him this time. I guess it's the adrenalin rush that gets you, the danger, the power. Getting a good ride, nothing else makes you feel that good."
The thrills, however, are dearly paid for -- particularly in fractured limbs and torn musculature.
Londo's recent trampling left him with a sore ankle -- hardly worth mentioning in light of his having broken bones 13 times in high school rodeos.