BY KIRK DOUGAL
Times Bulletin Publisher
VAN WERT - Not everyone has the opportunity to do something they love. Henry Rife is one of those lucky few.
Known as "The Pitbull," Rife has been making a name for himself as a daredevil for several decades but it all started locally with the humble beginnings of a little boy and his bicycle more than 40 years ago. He remembers pedaling up to the homemade dirt and plywood ramps of older boys and flying farther than any of them. That adrenaline rush of moving down a row of bikes while the big kids watched, sticking the landing and then riding away caught his attention right away. Throw in a healthy dose of hero worship for Evel Knievel and Rife was hooked.When Rife moved to motorized jumps, he began on mini-bikes and then motorcycles. It did not take him long to see that was not where he could make a name for himself. Luckily, he found a different route for himself.
"The ATVs came along and I started jumping them," he recently told the Times Bulletin. "I thought, 'Yep, this is my niche here.'"
Rife made the switch 22 years ago and has never looked back. That first jump with four wheels was over five cars but he said there was not a lot of thought that went into it back then. He watched someone else go over three cars and he said he turned to a friend and said, "I can do that." His first show began in 1993 at the Van-Del Drive-in where he successfully cleared five cars.
As could be expected, that initial success was not always duplicated. Over the years Rife has also jumped pick-ups, semi-tractors, and Harley Davidson motorcycles - and sometimes those performances ended badly. His worst crash was on a 112-foot attempt over a mobile home. On the landing he broke both his legs, an arm, a collarbone, and left himself unconscious for about 45 minutes. He has plans to complete that jump before he retires. He also said he would love to jump a pit filled with alligators as a tribute to Knievel's shark jump attempt in 1977.
As Rife continued to build up his shows and his notoriety, people outside the Van Wert area took notice. In 2007, he was asked to perform on the David Letterman Show in New York City where he would attempt to fly over six taxi cabs in the street outside the studio. For those in the Van Wert area who watched that night when the show aired, everything appeared to go great. Rife jumped the taxis, landed on the other side and then talked with Letterman.
But that was only part of the story. During the practice run in the afternoon, the cabs were spaced incorrectly and the show producers were not able to secure as much of a run-up as Rife normally used to build speed. The result was a jump that came up short, trashed his primary ATV, and re-broke a bone in his wrist. Rife completed the jump that evening on an ATV he had never had in the air. More importantly, to hold the broken bone in place, his crew taped a bent box wrench to his hand and forearm to hold together his wrist.
In the past year, Rife's daredevil career has taken two divergent paths - one that has a chance to make his career soar and another that reveals a different side of his personality.
In January Rife was approached by a production company that wanted to create a reality television show about daredevils. After several rounds of interviews, the producers chose Rife and three other performers - all motorcycle riders - to base the show upon. All this year, Rife has been followed by film crews as he has performed shows and he made one trip to New York City for green screen and voice-over work with more trips still to happen. A rough cut of the pilot has been created and will be delivered to the Discovery Channel for possible airing in December.
Rife said he was surprised at the amount of work that went into the filming, including approximately 50 hours of shooting just for himself. When you consider there is most likely the same amount of film for the other three performers, that leaves a lot of film on the cutting room floor. But from what he has seen of the rough cut, Rife thinks area people will like the show.
"I have seen some of the footage and they make Van Wert look absolutely amazing," he said. "We were tickled to death with it."
But at the same time this summer, Rife found out about a local boy, Luke Hoffman. Hoffman is 7 years-old and suffers from a recurring spinal condition that requires treatments making it necessary for him to relearn how to walk. Rife was struck by Hoffman's courage and tenacity.
"He has such a great outlook on things," Rife said of Hoffman. "He was making a game out of relearning to walk again. Most adults would be feeling sorry for themselves." Rife has been raising money at all of his shows throughout the year to help buy a wheelchair, rehabilitation equipment, and defray the costs of traveling for treatments.
Rife's love of being a daredevil is just as strong now as it was more than 40 years ago when he pedaled up to his first ramp. Van Wert area residents will get another opportunity to see him perform this Saturday, September 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Kernel Cooper's Corn Maze on Mendon Rd, just east of Van Wert. Rife will be attempting a jump over tractors - a new item on his list of obstacles - with his ATV. Just like anytime he attempts a new show, he is not quite sure what to expect but he hopes a big crowd will be there for all the excitement.