Paralyzed state senator still lives the ranch life in Burke
BURKE (AP) -- It was a warm June day, on the heights near the Missouri River in south central South Dakota, when Billie Sutton mounted his favorite horse, Purple, and went out to rope some calves.
For a ranch family such as that of the Suttons, it was routine.
But these days, nothing is routine for Sutton. Not since a freak rodeo accident in October 2007 abruptly changed his life.
Billie Sutton, 29, is paralyzed from the waist down.
Though he and his family hope for a recovery, success is not guaranteed.
Along the way, though, Sutton has managed to make an impressive life for himself. He's an officer at a bank. He recently married a woman about to earn her law degree. Through a special saddle, Sutton still can ride his horse and help out on the family ranch. And campaigning in a wheelchair, he's won two consecutive elections to the state Senate, where he's the assistant minority leader.
But unlike any of his colleagues in the bank or the Capitol, Sutton has his own song. His sister, Rehme, is an aspiring country singer whose first album includes a song about Billie's life.
"He's the toughest cowboy I've ever seen," Rehme sings in "Billie's Song," the final track on "Things To Do." 'He'll always be a hero to me."
Sutton knew how his life was going to work out.
As arguably the greatest rodeo rider the University of Wyoming had seen, Sutton was going to go professional. Before he graduated, he was out on the pro circuit, laying the groundwork for what figured to be a strong career as a saddle bronc rider.
But a bucking bronco threw Sutton into the chute wall that October evening, ending Sutton's rodeo dreams.
"I had planned on coming home my entire life," Sutton told the Argus Leader. "I didn't plan on coming home the way I came home."
Now, instead of riding under the spotlights in Las Vegas, Sutton works at a bank in Burke as an investment consultant.
He lives in town, rolling along Main Street in a wheelchair and using a special rig on his pickup truck that allows him to drive without using his feet.
Sutton is passionate about his work, but even the most rewarding days at the bank are hard-pressed to compare to the thrill of rodeo.
"This was an abrupt shut-off," said Renee Sutton, Billie's mother. "It was an absolute 90-degree turn from where you think you're headed, and then boom. ... Most people don't experience a turn like that."
Sutton's office at First Fidelity Bank is decorated with memorabilia of his riding days, photos and trophies and saddles.
"My dad was a saddle bronc rider, and I always knew I wanted to do it," Sutton said. "Once I started doing it, I was hooked."
It was easy to get hooked on rodeo at the Sutton family ranch, with sweeping vistas of the Missouri River along the road leading up to the barn and house.
"He's been dragging calves to the fire since he was 7," said Bill Sutton, Sutton's father.
Renee Sutton remembers her son's determination as a child.
"He worked hard at everything he ever did," Renee Sutton said. "So if we're going to ride a horse, we're going to really ride a horse good. If we're going to rope calves, we're going to rope calves good."
To practice, Sutton sometimes would go out and rope calves on foot, rather than mounted, where the horse does much of the work.
"He was very serious about what he was doing," said Rehme Sutton, Billie's younger sister, who was asked to help out by holding the calves. "I was so bad at it ... he'd get so mad if I wouldn't pull the calf."
All that work paid off. Sutton finished his college career as the University of Wyoming's all-time leader in individual rodeo points. While there, he made the national finals all four years.
"It was nothing for him in high school and college to tie a calf up to the fence and just run at him and tie him down all afternoon, again and again and again," Renee Sutton said.
He knew the sport he chose came with its dangers. "You know that there's risk," he said. Still, it didn't make it any easier to give it up after the accident. "When they tell you you can't do it any more, that's the toughest part," Sutton said.
It was nothing special when Sutton climbed onto a horse called Ruby in the Minot, N.D., rodeo chute. He had ridden in countless rodeos, and he had ridden Ruby before -- and won, with 84 points at the Clear Lake rodeo.
"I was pretty excited to have her drawn," Sutton recalled.
As he was trying to put his right foot into Ruby's stirrup, "she flipped over backward, pinned me against the back of the chute."
Rodeo riders get thrown all the time, even in chutes, and minor injuries are common.
"You worry about getting hurt, but not to that extent," Sutton said. "You always thought you could break an arm or a leg, but you never thought about being paralyzed."
By pure chance, Ruby threw Sutton into a spot on the fence where, earlier that day, another bronco had kicked out a board.
His lower spine wedged into the hole, contorting unnaturally.
Ruby immediately stood up.
"I wasn't sure what to think at first," Sutton said. "When the horse flipped over and stood up, it was instantly severe pain. It felt like my hips were way out in front of me. I said to the guys around me, 'You've got to get me out of here, I broke my back.' "
Sutton's parents had planned to come up to Minot on Friday to watch over the weekend. That changed when a friend of Billie's called with the news. They set out for Minot, then redirected to Minneapolis as Billie was airlifted to a hospital there.
"It was a long drive to Minneapolis," Bill Sutton said. "A lot of crying and prayer."
Billie had a number of operations, and doctors fused several of his vertebrae together and inserted rods and screws.
"One of the first things I remember him saying to me is, 'I'm 23 years old and I don't want to be paralyzed for the rest of my life,' " said Renee Sutton, Billie's mother.
The accident damaged Sutton's spine, rather than severing it. That meant recovery was possible. But almost six years later, he's shown little improvement despite several different attempts at therapy and treatment -- some promising, others his mother now derides as quacks. Sutton tried and failed to get into an experimental treatment program, which his family thinks could hold the key.
Outside Gregory County and the rodeo world, Sutton is best known for politics. A self-identified "conservative Democrat," Sutton ran for the state Senate in 2010. It was a terrible year for Democrats, who lost 13 seats as many prominent lawmakers went down to defeat. But Sutton, campaigning in his pickup and wheelchair, won almost 58 percent of the vote in the south-central South Dakota district.
The work has its challenges.
"I haven't done any door-to-door, because almost every house has steps," Sutton said. "I've just focused on going to as many public gatherings as possible."
Another advantage for Sutton is his name. His grandfather, also named Billie Sutton, represented south central South Dakota in the Legislature for six years in the 1970s, then was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1978.
The older Sutton and gubernatorial candidate Roger McKellips lost to Bill Janklow.
Ruth Sutton, widow of the elder Billie Sutton, was surprised when her grandson decided to enter politics.
"I should have known, I guess," said Ruth Sutton, who ventured into public life herself with an unsuccessful run for state auditor in 1986. "His interests were pretty much like his grandpa's."
Winning the election was only a first step, though. Beating back the Republican tide earned Sutton a seat in the Senate, but as one of only five Democrats in a 35-member body. To get anything done, he'd have to work with Republicans.
"He's an average South Dakotan," said Sen. Russell Olson, the Republican majority leader. "He ... works hard for the people he represents, and doesn't play the politics as hard as some assistant minority leaders have in the past."
When Sutton was elected, he talked with Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, who presides over the Senate and calls on lawmakers to speak, about the Senate tradition of standing to be heard. Sutton would be allowed to raise his hand to get Michels' attention.
It usually works, especially because Sutton makes a point to tip Michels off that he might want to say something. But sometimes the two don't connect, leaving Sutton waving his hand from the back row to try to weigh in on a topic.
Both men downplay those occasional miscommunications.
"There were a couple pretty funny times trying to get recognized in the Legislature this year," Sutton said. "But it works, for the most part."
Nothing drives home the dual sides of Sutton's post-injury life quite so much as the sight of him roping calves on the family ranch. Relatives have to pick him up and put him into the saddle, which has straps that hold him in. But once Sutton is in the saddle, it's almost impossible to tell he's any different from any other cowboy.
"I actually ride horses pretty often," Sutton said. "You've got to be careful. Since you can't feel ... from the belly button down, basically, you have to be careful how you take care of your body. Even if you break a bone, you don't know."
The saddle is only one way in which Sutton has tried to cope with his changed life. In addition to the special hand controls in his pickup, he has a special automated lift that picks up his wheelchair from the bed and deposits it outside the driver's side door. It works in reverse, too, and allows him to get around town alone without having to struggle with stowing the chair.
But technology and hardware can't fix some things.
"The biggest thing is just getting ready for the day," Sutton said. "It used to be, I could jump up in the morning and take a quick shower and be wherever I was going in 10 minutes. Now that process takes a good hour."
In all this, Sutton said he's blessed to have the support of his wife, Kelsea Kenzy Sutton. They married in 2011 after a long courtship with an inauspicious beginning. The two started dating only about a month before the Minot rodeo.
In fact, as Sutton lay in the hospital room in Minnesota six years ago, he had a message to pass on to his mother.
"He comes to, and he says to me, 'Kelsea's flying in,' " said Renee Sutton. "I said, 'Kelsea who?' "
His mother soon would get to know Kelsea, who grew up nearby and had known Sutton for years before they began seeing each other in college.
As Sutton's paralysis prognosis became clearer, he had a heart-to-heart with his girlfriend.
"I made it pretty clear to her that my life's going to be quite a bit different, and I would understand if she didn't stick around," Sutton said. "She didn't even flinch. She stuck with me 100 percent."
That made a big impression on more than one member of the Sutton family.
"What do you say about a girl who goes through all that with you, who could have cut and run?" Renee Sutton said.
Sutton's future is unclear. He continues to pursue treatment, adapt to his condition and build a new life.
"Many of my doors have closed. A lot of doors have opened for me, too," Sutton said. "You try to look at the positive things of any tough situation. Maybe God had a plan that wasn't necessarily my plan, but was a better plan than what I had in mind."