Stampede bull rider wears boots of best friend Ty Pozzobon, whose legacy lives on

Ty Pozzobon (Richard Drew/AP).

Right before the gate opens for bull rider Tanner Byrne as he gets ready to compete in the Calgary Stampede, he can look down at his feet for extra inspiration. “I know he’ll be there with us and we’ll just try to do good things in his honour,” Byrne said, as he thinks about his best friend Ty Pozzobon.

Pozzobon was just 25 when he died of suicide on January 9th, his family later confirming the talented rodeo athlete was dealing with the effects of concussions and battling depression.

The bond between Byrne and Pozzobon was so strong that Pozzobon’s parents have given Byrne their son’s boots to wear during competition. “It’s a constant, daily battle, that’s for sure,” Byrne said, discussing what life has been like without Pozzobon, whose death shocked the bull riding community.

Pozzobon was one of the sports strongest young competitors, having won the 2016 Professional Bull Riders Canada title, along with being a four-time finalist. But beyond his talent was the personality, which drew so many to admire the Merritt, B.C. native. “I can’t explain how much I miss the guy and his laugh and being around and his attitude towards bull riding and life in general,” Byrne said.

Pozzobon’s absence at the Stampede is distinct, with many athletes and officials wearing ‘Live Life Ty’ t-shirts, as well as Pozzy23 patches, representing his nickname and his placement in the world rankings at the time of his death.

Grief may exist in his absence six months after he passed, but his legacy lives on in increased awareness about concussions and mental health overall. Family and friends including Byrne established the Ty Pozzobon Foundation, to “protect and support the health and well-being of rodeo competitors inside and outside the arena.” Medical awareness at PBR events have increased, Pozzobon’s family donated his brain for research and Byrne said the overall discussion around mental health in his sport has grown significantly. “I think in our sport more than any sport, due to the mentality of that cowboy toughness and bullriding toughness, you’re never weak and never sit out,” he said. “But you’re a tougher person if you take care of yourself, sometimes that’s a tougher decision to make. Guys are being more aware of it and taking care of themselves.”

Athletes started wearing the Pozzy23 patch back in January at different events, but the Calgary Stampede takes on extra meaning, a place Pozzobon excelled at and fostered many strong friendships.

For Byrne, who is competing after battling injuries for the last six months, the gesture in Calgary is a heartfelt comfort. “To see people honouring him and supporting the foundation and taking care of themselves, that was the goal from the getgo,” he said. “It’s amazing and it gives you a good feeling, knowing that people are supporting your friend and you’re a little bit of a part of that to make it happen.”

Lucas Meyer is a producer and reporter for 660News in Calgary. He is also the play-by-play voice of the University of Calgary Dinos basketball teams. Follow him on Twitter@meyer_lucas.