Tricky limb restoration surgeries preserve Colten Fritzlan’s promising rodeo career

Surgeon’s orthopedic trauma – and rodeo – expertise has young phenom Colten Fritzlan back riding bulls.
March 23, 2022

Bull riding has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports” for good reason. A baseball player who fails at an at-bat walks back to the dugout shaking his head. A bull rider who fails to hang on for eight seconds ends up in the dirt dodging the angry hooves of a 2,000-pound beast. Few have the mettle, and those who do are rightly considered to be about as tough as they come.

Colten Fritzlan has not only the mettle, but also a mountain of riding talent. The Rifle, Colorado, native burst onto the pro-rodeo scene in 2019 while still a student at Western Texas College, and not only made it to the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, but also did so well there that he was crowned the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Resistol Bull Riding Rookie of the Year. (For all you rodeo fans, he won the average with 605 points on seven head.)

Colten Fritzlan on a bull after limb-restoration surgeries saved his rodeo career.
Colten Fritzlan in action at the Tuff Hedeman Bull Riding Tour competition in El Paso, Texas on Feb. 8, 2020, after limb restoration surgeries, helped preserve his rodeo career. Photo courtesy Todd Brewer Photography.

Limb-restoration and Colten Fritzlan’s rodeo career

Fritzlan’s success as a bull rider boils down to the same two factors underlying greatness at anything: a deep well of natural talent and a whole lot of practice. In Fritzlan’s case, though, a third element comes into play: the work of UCHealth and University of Colorado School of Medicine orthopedic trauma surgeon Dr. Jason Stoneback.

Stoneback leads UCHealth’s Limb Restoration Program. He is also a former rodeo rider himself. That combination was crucial to keeping Fritzlan healthy enough to plop himself onto the backs of huge, angry mammals who don’t want him up there.

Colten is the fourth generation of Fritzlans drawn to rodeo competition. When he was 7, his interest in roughstock (as these angry mammals are known in the rodeo business) led his parents to buy mini-bulls, steers, and, later, bulls. He was soon one of the best junior riders in the country. He was also, as happens in that particular athletic endeavor, injured a few times. That’s where Stoneback came in.

Stoneback first met Fritzlan when Fritzlan was in the sixth grade. Three years before that, the boy had been tossed from an angry animal and landed wrong, dislocating his left elbow. Doctors put the joint back in place, did surgery on the arm, and put him in a cast. He did some physical therapy and was, as Fritzlan put it, “good to go.”

When he was 11, though, the elbow became a problem again, and doctors now recognized that, in addition to having been dislocated, the elbow had also been broken in that fall three years earlier. That led to a second surgery with grafts and screws. Fritzlan managed to qualify for nationals despite the fact that the surgery never did quite take. A couple of failed follow-up surgeries later, he was referred to Stoneback.

Colten Fritzlan acknowledges the crowd in El Paso after limb-restoration surgeries saved his rodeo career.
Colten Fritzlan acknowledges the crowd in El Paso after limb-restoration surgeries helped preserve his rodeo career. Photo courtesy Todd Brewer Photography.

Stoneback, who practices at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus, knows rodeo nearly as well as he knows orthopedic traumatology. He competed in rodeo – in bull riding and saddle bronc – as an undergraduate at Middle Tennessee State University and has stayed in the game as a volunteer rodeo physician during pro rodeo events at the Greeley Stampede and the National Western Stock Show as well as through team roping with his wife Gin.

Even as a youth, Fritzlan’s gift for riding roughstock was obvious, and Stoneback knew what that elbow would have to endure in the arena in the years to come.

“If we didn’t think about his athletic career – if we didn’t fix the joint in a way that would have preserved his function, then his career would be over,” Stoneback said. “It was a big deal.”

Stoneback put together a plan to fix the elbow, preserve the range of motion, and get it to heal. The surgery involved harvesting bone from the crest of Fritzlan’s pelvis, precisely shaping it, and using it to help restore the elbow’s shape and function. The surgery was a success, and Fritzlan emerged as one of the country’s top youth top riders during his high school years.

Broken leg doesn’t stop Colten Fritzlan

He had overcome other injuries only a rodeo cowboy calls minor – dislocating both ankles, dislocating his right elbow, breaking his right shoulder – by the time another serious one happened. He was 16 and gearing up for nationals when, during a training ride in June 2017, the bull stepped on his leg. His left tibia snapped like a matchstick.

A surgeon installed screws and plates, and Fritzlan was hoping to be back for nationals four weeks later. That didn’t happen. Infections led to two cleanout surgeries and new hardware. He was working with his dad at the family flower stand in Rifle when he took his walking boot off to discover that “my whole leg is red and there’s a hole in the middle of my leg where I can see a screw head,” as Fritzlan described it. He was soon back in a UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital clinic room with Stoneback.

Stoneback recognized a serious problem: an infected nonunion of the tibia, “so the bone wasn’t healing, and it was infected,” Stoneback said. There was a real risk that he would need a flap of muscle and skin from another part of his body to be placed over the wound. Often, such flaps come from the thigh. Rodeo riders need all the thigh muscles – and other muscles, for that matter – that they can muster.

Dr. Jason Stoneback does limb-restoration surgeries to help preserve rodeo careers.
Dr. Jason Stoneback

“Because of his career, I didn’t want him to lose tissue and muscle,” Stoneback said.

The fix took three surgeries over five days and the creative use of an external fixator – a frame screwed into the bone just below Fritzlan’s knee and just above the ankle. First, the frame held the leg such that the wound would heal; then Stoneback adjusted its position to optimize bone healing. Over the next few months, the leg healed with its normal shape and contour, which a flap would have altered. “That’s a big win,” Stoneback said.

Stoneback’s experience with rodeo played into Fritzlan’s recovery, too. Because Stoneback understood the sport, he OK’d returning to training on a bucking barrel earlier than a surgeon unfamiliar with the term probably would have. The same went for riding bulls in the practice pen, which are easier to stay on and therefore safer, assuming they don’t happen to stomp on your leg.

By early 2018, Fritzlan was competing again. He invited his surgeon to come out to a rodeo. Stoneback did more than watch from the stands.

“I went behind the chutes, helped him on the bull and pulled his bull rope,” Stoneback said.

Stoneback knows the sport well enough to have long recognized Fritzlan’s talent.

“He’s a star,” the surgeon said.

Fritzlan returned the compliment.

“He did a great job,” Fritzlan said. “He’s definitely one of the best.”

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.