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MERCER: Rodeo injury steered Sutton into politics

PIERRE — Wednesday marked the tenth anniversary of the rodeo injury that put Billie Sutton in a wheelchair, maybe forever.

What happened Oct. 4, 2007, changed every moment of life that followed.

"I don't think I'd be running for governor," Sutton said Wednesday, "if I didn't have this injury."

He was 23 years old then, "hovering" — as he put it — among the top 30 saddle-bronc riders in the world.

Today Billie Sutton is a fourth-term state senator from Burke. He is the only Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.

Four Republicans are seeking their party's nomination for governor in the June 2018 primary election.

South Dakota hasn't elected anyone for governor other than Republicans since Democrat Dick Kneip won a third straight term in 1974. Sutton wants to break that streak.

He acknowledged it's unlikely he would be a legislator if he hadn't been hurt 10 years ago.

He knew that his grandfather, named Billie Sutton too, had been a Democratic senator for six years and ran for lieutenant governor in 1978.

The elder Sutton died in 1982, two years before Billie's birth March 16, 1984.

"I had no interest at all in politics before my injury. It just never even crossed my mind whatsoever," the younger Sutton said.

Instead, in that decisive fall of 2007, he was finishing the final 12 credits for his bachelor degree at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and competing on the pro rodeo circuit.

He finished with the top regional average for saddle broncs in 2006, as a rookie, to make the Dodge national-circuit finals in Pocatello, Idaho.

For his first ride at the 2007 regional finals in Minot, North Dakota, he drew a horse named Ruby.

He recalled Wednesday his left boot was in one stirrup and he was bending to put his right boot in the other.

That's when Ruby reared. She smashed him against the back of the chute.

The weight crushed against his back. Two vertebrae broke. He was instantly paralyzed from the waist down.

"It was a one in a million deal," he said.

The ambulance crew took him to Minot's hospital. Then a plane flew him to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. Bone was taken from his left hip to rebuild vertebrae.

After two weeks doctors transferred him to Craig Hospital in suburban Denver for in-depth rehabilitation. He made it back to Burke before Christmas and finished classes at Laramie in spring 2008.

But in a wheelchair.

A few weeks before the injury Sutton started seeing Kelsea Kenzy, a friend of his younger sister, Rehme. Now Billie and Kelsea Sutton are married. She's a lawyer. They conceived their son, Liam, in vitro.

Billie said he'd support Liam in rodeo or anything else, as his parents did for their children.

"People have asked me, if I could go back, would I change the outcome. I think my answer is no, just because of what I know now," he said.