"Readers looking for inspiration (or just a great story) will discover a wild ride that proves just how twisty some paths to Christ can be." - Publishers Weekly
Many of us would say it takes guts and a little bit of crazy to step toe-to-toe with a powerful, 1,700 pound bull. For Hall-of-Fame bullfighter Jeremy Sparks, it took faith.
Sparks' remarkable and illustrious journey began at a young age when he received a God-given calling to become a professional bullfighter. Soon after accepting a college scholarship for rodeo, he suffered a near-fatal electrocution, which, but for his faith in God, would have ruined his dream. After three years of training under a world champion, he was accepted into the elite Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and spent years tussling with raging bulls until God, once again, showed him another path.
While the terrorist attack on September 11th rocked the country, Sparks saw it as an invitation to serve. He enlisted just weeks after the attack, and earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the US Air Force and an endorsement from the Pentagon as the "only professional bullfighter in the history of the USAF."
Once a small-town kid from Arkansas, now a Hall-of-Fame rodeo icon, Sparks shares his stories of strength and service. With God at the center of this fascinating story, Go West highlights the 10 Biblical principles that Sparks learned, experienced, and lived by as a professional bull fighter, officer in the armed forces, and follower of Jesus Christ.
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About the Author
Soon after accepting Jesus Christ into his life, Jeremy Sparks received a specific vision from God. At 14, God called Jeremy to be a rodeo bullfighter. He went on to become a professional bullfighter and was later enshrined in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo Hall of Fame. Jeremy earned his MBA, and served his country as an officer in the Air Force, where he was endorsed by the Pentagon as the "only professional bullfighter in the history of the USAF." Jeremy and wife, Jamie, live in Fayetteville, Arkansas with their beautiful twin boys.
Stephen Caldwell is the owner and chief word architect of WordBuilders Communications, where he pursues his passion for helping people grow personally and professionally. He is the author of Grow Like Jesus and co-author of Forging Grit. Stephen spends most of his working hours either helping clients develop and share their ideas or wrestling with his own writing projects.
Read an Excerpt
10 Principles that Guided My Cowboy Journey
By Jeremy Sparks, Stephen Caldwell
Elevate PublishingCopyright © 2016 Jeremy Sparks
All rights reserved.
My God-given Vision
The stare down between man and beast is the ultimate battle of survival. After 70 dreadful seconds, a winner emerges. And a loser, if he's fortunate, walks away.
It's the modern-day gladiator sport of American freestyle bullfighting.
Out-matched in size, speed, and strength, it appears unfair for a man to look death in the eyes like this. And that's why so few men do it — and why even fewer do it for very long.
Yet, there I was.
It was March 2000, and I was standing in the middle of a dirt-covered arena floor in Lawton, Oklahoma. George Thorogood and The Destroyers were belting Bad to the Bone through the stadium speakers all around me. Adrenaline rushed as my heart beat 180 times per minute.
This wasn't my first rodeo, as the saying goes, but it was my first freestyle bullfight of this caliber. It was one of the most respected events of the year, the Rex Dunn Invitational, and it took me from the minor leagues to the majors.
In reality, it was my first time to fight on the big stage. In baseball terms, I had made it to the Show. Now I just had to avoid being killed off.
With a quick motion of the hand, I signaled to start the fight, and then I heard the command from the arena announcer.
"Turn 'em out," he yelled.
The bull weighed in at 1,800 pounds. He was high-headed, wild, mean, and appropriately called "Nasty"
His reputation preceded him. Before the fight ever started, guys in the locker room had shared the story of Nasty near-fatally injuring his last opponent.
"Only one guy has walked out on his own terms," said Rex Dunn himself, legendary bullfighter and Nasty's owner.
He paused as a mischievous smile overtook his face.
Not exactly what I wanted to hear.
I'd eaten very little that day. Nerves and excitement had spoiled my appetite. A garden salad and a sweet tea for lunch were the extent of it. Still, I felt ready. I'd trained most of my life for this moment. And now it was here.
As Nasty sprinted to my position in the middle of the arena, I started to run toward him. My goal: Engage him. Dance with him, if you will. But don't get killed by him. The first point of contact between bull and fighter typically establishes the tone of the fight. So I braced for the worst, but expected the best. I faked as if going to the left, throwing all of my weight in that direction.
Nasty took the fake.
I stopped in mid-stride, transitioning to the right as he flew by. His horn had missed my ribs by a fraction of an inch.
Whew, I thought, that was a close one.
The fight was on.
For the next 50 seconds, Nasty turned me every which way but loose. One moment I was flung through the air, the next I was pinned to the ground beneath Nasty's two massive horns.
With every hit, the crowd let out an audible gasp.
Like a boxer knocked down by a blow to the head, there was a choice to make: Stand up or surrender.
With every pass, my life flashed before my eyes.
"Get up, Jeremy," I told myself. "You weren't called to quit."
My knees were busted and bleeding, and my clothes were completely shredded. Hydrated by only sweet tea, my body began to shut down.
Fear set in as the fight came to a close.
"How much noise can you make for Jeremy Sparks?!" the announcer beckoned.
The thunderous cheers fell on deaf ears. I would have preferred air to the applause.
Nasty won again.
The ambulance rushed me to the emergency room. As we neared the hospital, I asked one of the medical technicians to call my momma.
"She'll be worried if she doesn't hear from me after the event," I told him.
"Momma, the bullfight is over," I said bluntly as soon as she picked up the call. "I'm okay, just pulling into the hospital. The rodeo doc said it's probably best that I get checked out."
"How in the world did you get there?" she asked.
"Well," I said, "it's an interesting story."
The youngest child of hard-working, middle-aged, middle-class, Christian parents and the result of an unplanned pregnancy, my arrival was welcomed with much excitement on May 31, 1977.
My parents already had two sons, one 12 and the other seven, but they remained steadfast that, while unplanned, I was not unloved.
My brothers, Jeff and Jay, affectionately referred to me as the "the golden child," reaping the proverbial benefits of relaxed parenting. Our opinions contradict.
Jay defined me as funny, odd, perplexing, and slightly annoying with my hint of overconfidence. Jeff viewed me as determined, persistent, and a hair too daring. On some occasions, I was a chameleon, displaying all these traits at the same time.
Specifically, I remember the first Sparks Brothers "Free-for-all Brawl." The three of us engaged in an all-out relentless fight. We turned over furniture and ultimately wrecked Jeff's bedroom.
Jeff was approaching 19, Jay 14, and I was seven. Age was simply a number that day. It was the beginning of a long trend in which I would demonstrate my thrill for jumping in over my head just to see if I could survive.
While I depended on sheer determination, our parents depended on God. Raising three wild boys exceeded their skillset. Without God's influence in our lives, Mom and Dad thought it was possible that we could become whiskey-bent and hell-bound.
Especially me — the mischievous one.
Dad was a deacon at the church, and Momma played the piano. We were at church every time the doors were open. But they didn't push religion on us. They simply lived their faith. Their relationship with Jesus was humble and genuine, and we witnessed their daily obedience to the Lord. They weren't Bible-thumpers, and they never came across as preachy. Mom and Dad just made it known we couldn't ride their coattails into heaven. We each needed our own faith.
Before moving to Fountain Hill, we lived in Marvell, another rural, Delta town in Arkansas. It was there I first felt my own sense of conviction. In March 1989, just a couple of months before my 12th birthday, the Marvell First Baptist Church held a weeklong revival. Like every Sunday, the Sparks family sat on the third row for every service.
I literally broke into a sweat at the conclusion of each service that week. When our preacher made the invitation for anyone who wanted to profess Jesus as Lord to come forward, my stomach moved to my throat. I refused to surrender to the conviction. I simply didn't have the courage to step out in faith.
On the morning of the final day of the revival, I went to school just like every day before. But something was different. A stronger and more powerful conviction came over me. I ignored it as long as I could. Then, as I sat quietly in my reading class, I surrendered to Jesus. I asked for forgiveness and accepted Him as the true Son of God.
When the 6 p.m. service rolled around, I knew I had to follow through during the invitation. So I eased my way out to the aisle, took the preachers hand, and publicly professed my decision to follow Jesus.
I prayed I would live in accordance to God's will, but I had no idea what the Lord's plans were for me. As a new believer in Jesus, I took great comfort in knowing God was in control.
My faith in Christ became the foundation of my story.
Two years later, God revealed to me the first glimpse of His plan. It wasn't as if I thought I needed to do something for God. It was more an idea that God could use me for His purpose.
To be a vessel for God.
Being a vessel for Christ wasn't a new concept. Nor was I unique for feeling this way. In fact, what I felt was an elementary principle of the Christian faith.
Simply put, a container is a container. Whether it holds water, money, or food, it does not become its contents. The container always remains the container. In the same way, life is a container — a vessel that can be used to carry God's purpose on earth (Romans 9).
This idea of making myself a vessel for God started as a feeling, but soon it manifested into a God-given vision.
Slumped over the tiny study in my bedroom, sitting on a small, wooden chair, I humbly asked God for direction in my life.
What followed is hard to explain.
I didn't see heaven. I didn't see Jesus. Yet the vision was powerful, and the experience was life changing.
Before saying "Amen" to conclude the prayer, I felt the presence of God upon me. A quiet calmness fell around me. Everything stood still. With my eyes closed and arms extended, tears fell down my cheeks.
It wasn't scary. Quite the opposite, actually. It was comforting and peaceful. Being surrounded by the power of the Holy Spirit was awe-inspiring.
The vision was clear.
As the scenes unfolded, I saw a glimpse of my future. I was a rodeo bullfighter, performing on grand stages and traveling the world. God was using me to reach audiences that may not otherwise hear of the salvation offered through Christ or see firsthand the joy that is in the lives of those called to His purpose.
Then I heard the voice of God speak to my soul, revealing the purpose for my life. As clear as day, I heard these words loud and clear: "You will go out to witness, encourage, serve, and testify."
I was to glorify God. My light needed to shine so that others might see God's awesomeness.
Matthew 5:16 declares that the purpose for everyone is to: "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (ESV)
As the vision concluded, I understood the why, but the how didn't come so easily.
A rodeo bullfighter? I thought. How is that going to happen?
My mom's brothers, John Allen Cruce and Jerry Cruce, owned a small rodeo company in our hometown of Fountain Hill, Arkansas. C&C Rodeo, or "Cruces" as it was commonly referred to, sat just north of our little 150-person community.
Uncle Jerry was a respected bull rider in Arkansas and across the South in his day. In 1976, in fact, he was the Arkansas state champion.
Uncle John Allen rarely competed in rodeo, but he was a respected horse trainer and an even better storyteller.
Two of my aunts, Aunt Dian Ricks (my momma's sister) and Aunt Sharon (Uncle Jerry's wife), were the rodeo's secretaries. My three first cousins were all-around cowboys and helped out around the place. My Uncle John Ricks ran the concession stand.
It was a family business, to say the least.
My grandma, or Mammaw as everyone knew her, was the rodeo's biggest fan and my transportation to Cruces.
In rural Arkansas, rodeo was our "Friday Night Lights." No other sport came close. People loved our little rodeo and hundreds of spectators piled in every weekend from March through October.
When the live action unfolded, fans, family, and instigators flocked to my Uncle John Allen. Everyone knew that when his Bud Light started talking, a scene was sure to follow. From runaway horses to bulls leaping the arena fence, he loved it all. The wilder the better. That's when he would typically proclaim, "John Cruce is on the loose!"
If work needed to be done around Cruces, and you were of blood kin, a job was in your immediate future. And as typical of many family businesses, we mostly were paid in love, not cash.
One August in 1990 when I was still 12, a cousin and I had the bright idea to tempt fate in pursuit of a quick dollar. We signed up to compete in the rodeo's most dangerous event — bull riding.
If we aren't going to get rich for pitching in, we thought, we should at least ride for the jackpot.
In bull riding, a willing and able human being tries to ride a bull for eight seconds, hanging on with one hand wedged in a rope. The bull's job is to buck, spin, and implode like a balloon that has suddenly released its air.
Sounded easy enough.
I was entered, and thereafter climbed on the back of a bull branded C86. He was a novice bull, but he was plenty fierce for me!
Uncle Jerry gave his fearless nephew a few parting words of wisdom.
"Keep your hand shut, stay up on your rope, and have fun!" he said.
Uncle John Allen then yelled, "Turn 'em out in the big pen, boys!"
And with that, the show was on.
Riding that first bull felt like being in the middle of a tornado! Adrenaline raged through every vein.
But I took Uncle Jerry's advice as literal and didn't open my hand when the ride was over. As a result, my hand remained hung in the bull rope. I was drug around the arena and stepped on every time C86 hoofs crashed down on the dirt.
Uncle Jerry rushed to my rescue, freeing my hand from the rope. It was a sweet relief to my punished body.
I didn't earn a dime. In fact, I didn't even last the required eight seconds to qualify for the jackpot.
But like fighting with my older brothers, the experience was exhilarating.
As I brushed the dirt off and checked out my torn clothes, I thought, I can't wait to do this again!
Driving home, Mammaw tried to focus on keeping her old Ford in the middle of Midway Route, not on my battered body.
"Mammaw, what do you think Mom and Dad are going to say?" I asked, breaking the awkward silence.
"I don't know. What do you think?" she replied as her eyes sparkled behind her rose-tinted glasses. She didn't have to say anything else. I knew it wasn't going to be good.
As we both expected, my parents didn't take kindly to their baby's condition.
When they saw my clothes were torn beyond repair, my mom frantically asked, "What in the world happened to you?"
How could I rationalize that all was well when I looked like a rag doll? There was no need for me to even try and explain.
"John Allen and Jerry put him on a bull," Mammaw said.
And the parental fireworks show began!
"You've got to be kidding me!" Momma cried.
"Son, didn't you know better?" Dad added.
It was a verbal ping-pong match, and I was the ball. Mammaw was the hypothetical net. When Mom and Dad paused to regroup, she would chime in.
Mammaw caught the rodeo fever years back and was a lifelong fan.
"Claudie," she said to my mom, "there isn't one thing wrong with Jeremy trying his hand at bull riding; boys will be boys!"
My parents begged to differ.
Meeting My Mentor
Why would God call me to reach people through rodeo? I wondered two months later when I received my vision.
I was terrible, inexperienced, and my parents didn't approve.
Knowing how my parents had taken the news of my bull riding experiment, I was reluctant to inform them of my vision. Even though it was a real experience, it felt safer keeping it to myself.
So, for a while, that's what I did.
On March 20, 1991, I went along for a rodeo road trip to Texarkana, Arkansas with Mark and Kim Bowden. Mark is a second cousin. Kim helped my aunts keep the books at my uncles' rodeo. Their two kids and I enjoyed living the rural life together in L.A. — Lower Arkansas. With every weekend that passed, Kim saw my craving for rodeo grow.
I was beyond excited to tag along.
Texarkana hosts an annual bucking bull sale each March. Stock contractors and spectators come to watch the next generation of bucking bulls perform.
We were no different.
I wanted to watch the live action. Mark was intrigued by the bucking bulls, always bragging on the top selling bull. Kim and their kids enjoyed the rodeo atmosphere and fellowship.
While taking in the action, Kim noticed a local celebrity in the stands — Donny Sparks, a champion professional bullfighter.
Kim called to Donny as she pointed at me.
"This boy is a Sparks," she said.
Immediately, Donny fired back as genuine as the day is long.
"Oh, really," he said. "We've gotta be kin."
He made his way to our seats and started to inquire.
From our initial conversation, we gathered that we probably were distant cousins. Perhaps we are, but that day was the start of a friendship that became even closer than kinship.
From my perspective, Donny Sparks could have walked on water. We just didn't have any water for him to prove it!
At the ripe age of 26, he was already a two-time reserve world champion bullfighter in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) on the Wrangler Bullfighting Tour. His signature move was to run straight at a raging bull and leap over it from head to tail. It's as if he was competing in a sprint hurdle race — but these hurdles wanted to gore him to death.
By all accounts, he is the greatest and most graceful bull jumper that rodeo has ever seen.
After spending a few hours with Donny on that cold March day, it felt like a safe place to share my vision. Donny didn't question my authenticity, or my naivety — he listened and encouraged. As our conversation continued, the notion of being a rodeo cowboy somehow seemed sensible.
While I was confident that my vision was God-inspired, it was comforting to see someone in the flesh living that exact life.
I believe God sent Donny to me that day to confirm a specific piece of my life's puzzle.
God called me to be a vessel. That was my why. My purpose — bullfighting — was to be my how.
I left Texarkana sold on fulfilling my God-given dream — no matter the price and no matter the sacrifice!
You can imagine the looks I received when I returned home and finally started sharing my vision.
In some form or fashion, this is what I typically heard: "Say what?" "God said you were going to be a rodeo bullfighter?" "Are you serious?" "You're too small."
Mom and Dad said, "You're dreaming, alright. You are too young, and you will get hurt!"
Excerpted from Go West by Jeremy Sparks, Stephen Caldwell. Copyright © 2016 Jeremy Sparks. Excerpted by permission of Elevate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Jeremy Sparks, The Cowboy Soldier Justin McKee, Rodeo Television Personality vii
Section 1 A Cowboys Calling 13
Chapter 1 My God-given Vision 15
Chapter 2 Encouraging Words 31
Chapter 3 In a Flash 47
Chapter 4 Phoenix Rising 63
Section 2 The Rocky Road 81
Chapter 5 Duty Calls 83
Chapter 6 Divine Assignment 97
Chapter 7 A Shaky Start 113
Chapter 8 The Fine Line 127
Section 3 Letting Go 143
Chapter 9 My New Calling 145
Chapter 10 One Last Rodeo 161
Chapter 11 Repacking My Rucksack 177
Epilogue: The Years Since 189
About the Author 201
What People are Saying About This
“ Go West is the inspirational story of a tough and faith-based cowboy who teaches the reader how to “shoot the gap” like a bullfighter in life, love, and faith.”
No. 1 New York Times Bestselling Author, Off the Grid
“ Go West is a compelling novel about the perseverance of a young officer and bullfighter who taught a reluctant Air Force leadership to not only support his rodeo ambitions, but to sponsor him. The U.S. Air Force core valuesIntegrity First/Service Before Self/Excellence In All We Dorings loud throughout the pages of Go West. Beyond inspiring.”
Brigadier General (Retired), USAF
“This is an excellent story of dreams, setbacks, commitment, forgiveness, and, most of all, great faith. Inspiring and insightful. It makes you think about your own life in a different waya better way.”
Chairman, Cheyenne Frontier Days
“If you want to be a champion in life, Go West is the book for you. I encourage all to read Sparks’ incredible journey in discovering his true calling.”
World Champion Bull Rider
Founder of Western Harvest Ministries
“ Go West is not only an entertaining read, but also one that provides you with a transferable skill set based on 10 principles for thriving in this world. No matter who you are or what you do, using and honing these skills will help you achieve more than you ever thought possible.”
Book Publishing Director, Western Horseman Magazine
“Each and every bullfighter has a life unlike any other profession. It is grueling, dangerous, painful, and highly satisfying to those who make it a living. Jeremy Sparks has conveyed his experiences with the ability few others in this profession have. His time in the arena was inspired by God, and his life was meant to guide and encourage others to achieve more than they ever imagined, regardless of background, education, or direction in life. Go West is a must read!”
Author, Fearless Funnymen
“Jeremy’s journey is uplifting and inspiring! In Go West , Jeremy proves that, with God, the possibilities are endless.”
Seven-time World Champion Team Roper
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the best book I've ever read. A great book that relates to anyone who is pursuing their passion. You will be inspired.
A great read. Inspirational story that proves anything is possible.
Great story of personal journey, that can help guide you also. Good read, enjoyed very much!! I enjoy reading for personal development and also leisure. This will hit all spectrums and will not disappoint.
This book gives us all hope that God will prevail.
An awesome book. Jeremy takes you throw the highs and lows of a cowboys life. No matter what happens though, he keeps his eyes turning back to God. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.