“I didn’t know if my rodeo career was over. I could almost hear God saying that following Him would make bull riding look like child’s play. Christ offered me life to the very fullest. All I had to do was nod my head.” – Josh Thames
“It’s the smell that always hits me first – the rosin on my glove mixing with the scent of leather, cattle, dirt and sweat. The roar of the crowd fades as I sit down on 1,800 pounds of fury. A cowboy pulls the rope tight around my hand, and I line my pinky finger up with that bull’s spine. Everything goes silent as I pull myself up and drop my legs down off the bars of that pen. I nod my head. I hear the click of the metal gate and the bull tenses up. No more time for thinking. The whole world goes blank.
Josh Thames is an adrenaline junkie. At age six, he told his parents and 12 siblings he planned to be a professional athlete. Two years later he was riding dirt bikes, and at 15 he discovered his life’s passion: bull riding. At 17, Josh quit school so he could ride in his first professional rodeo. Later, Josh bought a minivan, put a mattress and his dog in the back and started traveling the rodeo circuit.
As one of the top-ranked riders in the country, Josh was winning money, signing autographs, and reveling in the spotlight of the Professional Bull Riders tour. “All that attention fed my sinful nature. My mother and father, a vocational minister, both taught me about the Bible. I knew the gospel, but I wasn’t living it. I wanted to be my own god.”
Josh’s star continued to rise. Big wins, TV coverage and beautiful women were all at his fingertips, but the luster was fading. “I remember meeting some very famous people one night. It felt like shaking hands with a mannequin, they all seemed so empty. Alone in my hotel bed that evening, I tried to convince myself that this life was fulfilling. But it wasn’t.”
“I made the short round in Prescott, Arizona, and was set to ride this nasty bull called American Honey. He was known to do a complete 180 out of the gate before his feet ever hit the ground. The gates flew open, and it was four seconds of jumping, kicking and spinning before I was flat on my back. Two hooves drove into my chest, collapsing one lung and slicing my liver in half. He hit one of the bull fighters hard before coming after me again. As a cowboy, we are supposed to be tough enough to walk away. But as I stood up, pain shot through my body, and I hit the dirt.”
Josh was helicoptered to a Phoenix trauma unit. “I didn’t know what the term ICU even meant as the doctors looked over my injuries. I still thought I was Superman until the guy next to me was wheeled out with a sheet over his head.” A doctor called Josh’s parents and told them he might not make it. Then Josh’s phone rang. “My dad said it seemed like a good time to read my Bible and contemplate where I stood with Christ. He reminded me that I still had the chance to respond to Jesus.”
After six days, Josh had improved enough to move to a different floor. “My hospital roommate sounded like he should have died last week, so there was no sleeping and plenty of time to think. Over the years, my dad would call at crazy hours, hoping I’d answer. I never did, but I saved every voicemail. I still tear up thinking about the night I listened to all 42 of Dad’s messages. Each time he’d say, ‘I love you. I’m thankful for you. I’m proud of you, and I can’t wait to see what God does when He gets your heart.’ That night I knew my dad’s love was a dim reflection of the way the Lord loves me. God’s great love demanded a response.”
Josh later returned to his parents’ home in Mackinaw, Illinois, with a battle raging inside of him. “I didn’t know if my rodeo career was over. I could almost hear God saying that following Him would make bull riding look like child’s play. Christ offered me life to the very fullest. All I had to do was nod my head.”
Josh did not expect the 180 degree turn his life would take after trusting Jesus. Josh left rodeo life to work in fulltime ministry – first in Arizona and then at a summer camp in East Texas. Later Josh applied for Watermark’s Residency, a year-long discipleship program offering biblical teaching and hands-on ministry experience to people pursuing vocational ministry. Soon the guy who hadn’t lived in the same place longer than three months was committed to a year as a Watermark Resident in Dallas.
“I used to be solely focused on serving myself,” said Josh. “But God gave me a heart to sharpen my skills and serve the local church. I got to know Scripture so much better as a result. As I’ve studied the Old Testament with the other residents this year, I see the story with a different set of eyes. I know that God has been pursuing people just like me faithfully since the beginning of time.”
Josh is continually amazed by just how faithful God has been. “When I trusted Christ, I prayed that He would break me and shape me into the man He wanted me to be. Life with Christ has been more fulfilling than anything I could have imagined. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”