This Day in History: Eight Years Ago Pope John Paul II Suffered Devastating Injuries While Bull-Riding

Pope John Paul II
John Paul II waves to the crowd at the 2005 International Finals Rodeo in Rome

March 28, 2005–By 2005, Pope John Paul II had long been the subject of rumors regarding his failing health. Beginning in the late 90s, there had been whispers that the pontiff was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, brought on in the early years of his papacy when he moonlighted as a welterweight club fighter on the weekends in Rome.

Following an assassination attempt in 1981, when Turkish Mehmet Ali Agca shot him a total of 12 times from point blank range, John Paul II was forced to hang up his gloves for good. Afterward, the pontiff proved his toughness by walking out of the hospital less than a week after the attack, less one kidney and with over a quarter of his skull replaced by a titanium plate. John Paul II showed true humility when he visited his would-be assassin in prison, offering his forgiveness while promising that if Agca ever got out of the joint, he would be there to greet him.

Before he even fully recovered, the pope thwarted a second attempt on his life the following year, when Juan Maria Fernandez y Krohn, a radical Spanish priest, with a team of ninja assassins, attacked him as he practiced martial arts in the Vatican physical training center. The attack left four of the ninja assassins dead and another two temporarily incapacitated, while Krohn would never walk or breathe on his own again. But it had taken its toll on John Paul II as well, as the injuries he suffered forced him to dramatically decrease his strength and conditioning training.

Throughout the 90s and into the new century John Paul II appeared to grow more frail with each passing year. Those closest to the pontiff say he was well aware of the rumors regarding his declining health, and grew furious when the subject was broached. There is an unsubstantiated, though widely believed, story that John Paul II challenged world martial arts champion Chuck Norris to a cage match, which Norris reportedly declined.

In March of 2005, the International Finals Rodeo was held in Rome. The night of March 28th was the final night of the rodeo, when the signature event, bull riding, was to be held. Not much is known about how the pope managed to sneak out of the Vatican and travel unnoticed to the arena, but investigators believe he used bed sheets to lower himself three stories from his bedroom window to the courtyard below. After somehow making it to the arena, the pope knocked out Rusty Yates, a bull rider from Texas, and took his place atop Direct Line to Jesus, a 2,000 lb. bull so named because it was said that anyone who tried to ride him would be talking to God immediately.

As the gate opened John Paul II took off his ten gallon hat and waved to the crowd, which erupted in rapturous applause. The pope stayed on the bull well past the eight second mark, earning the highest score of the night. He easily hopped off the back of the rampaging beast and trotted toward the safety of the arena wall, but, tragically, an old injury from his second assassination attempt slowed him. His knee buckled, and the bull charged, hitting him full in the back and goring him with his horn, fully impaling him to the horror of the crowd. The pope somehow managed to wrestle the bull to the ground before emergency responders helped him to his feet.

John Paul II was rushed to the hospital, where doctors were able to successfully save him with emergency surgery. However, the pope developed pneumonia during his recovery and died four days later at the age of 84.

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