Bull riding legend makes dream come true

Pictured, Aiden Pennington, who has a congenital heart disease, meets champion bull rider Tuff Hedeman at the Waterloo Rural King prior to the Blue Army Bull Bash on Sept. 15. For photos from the bull ride, click here.
(submitted photo)

The Waterloo Optimist Club’s annual Blue Army Bull Bash on Sept. 15 was especially momentous for one 8-year-old Missouri boy.

Aiden, who lives in Niangua, Mo., with his mother and grandparents, has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart.

To surprise Aiden, his grandparents and mother drove him to Waterloo to meet Tuff Hedeman, the world-champion bull rider who brought his Break Out Midwest Swing to the Monroe County Fairgrounds.

Aiden, who has had three open heart surgeries and five cardiac catheterizations, idolizes Hedeman. So, when Aiden walked into Rural King during Hedeman’s morning autograph session, he was shocked.

“We walked in and he saw the bull riders and he saw Tuff,” Aiden’s grandmother, Deb Pennington, recalled. “I asked him, ‘do you know who that is?’ He was kind of shaking his head because he knew but he was stunned. I said ‘that’s Tuff Hedeman,” and he was just thrilled.”

Aiden received an autograph from Hedeman and other bull riders on his cowboy hat. Aiden’s grandfather told Hedeman about his grandson’s heart condition. For his part, Aiden talked about his hobby.

Despite his condition, Aiden rides horses and calves and plans to compete on the latter in November.

“He’s one of the few kids with HLHS who has had a pretty normal lifestyle,” Deb said. “If you see Aiden, you would never know that he has ever had anything wrong with him because he does everything. He’s a very normal 8-year-old boy.”

After meeting Hedeman at Rural King, Aiden spent more time with him immediately after the bull ride.

Aiden spent most of the event behind the chutes, talking to cowboys to get pointers on his calf riding. As he was getting autographs after the bull ride, two cowboys he met at Rural King told him to make sure to say goodbye to Hedeman.

When Aiden went to do that, Hedeman remembered him.

“He said, ‘Hey, my little buddy’s back,’” Deb remembered.

As Aiden and Tuff talked, Aiden asked him to sign his Lane Frost hat.

Frost was a professional bull rider who died in 1989 from injuries sustained after a bull ride. He and Hedeman were best friends.

“Tuff said, ‘I like this hat. This is such a cool hat,’” Deb said.

Hedeman then replaced Aiden’s hat with his own.

He asked Aiden if it fit, and when Aiden said it did, Hedeman told him to keep it.

“Aiden was almost in tears because he was so thrilled,” Deb said.  “It was such an amazing experience because Aiden has been such a big fan of Tuff Hedeman and Lane Frost for the last three or four years. He just was awestruck.”

Aiden echoed that sentiment.

“It was really cool because he’s really like my number two bull rider because he was Lane Frost’s buddy,” Aiden said.

Waterloo Optimist member and event chairman Jim Probst said moments like that are what the Optimists are all about.

“I’ve known Tuff for years and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he did that,” Probst said.  “As Optimists, we’re here to help out the community and kids and this event is a good fit for that, as you see by what Tuff did.”

For photos from the Sept. 15 bull ride in Waterloo, click here.

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James Moss

James is an alumni of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where he graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mass communications and applied communications studies. While in school, he interned at two newspapers and worked at a local grocery store to pay for his education. When not working for the Republic-Times, he enjoys watching movies, reading, playing video games and spending time with his friends.
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