Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (8 p.m. ET) on ABC

By Patrick Gomez
April 10, 2017 07:36 PM
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As a breakout heartthrob on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Bonner Bolton is having the ride of his life.

But last winter, the professional bull rider, 29, wasn’t sure he’d ever walk again.

“I was winning,” he says in the current issue of PEOPLE of the night he almost died during the Professional Bull Riders’ season opener in Rosedale, Illinois. “But then I dismounted wrong, landed on my head and broke my neck.”

Bolton was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, but after the initial swelling subsided, he regained mobility. But the Odessa, Texas, native — whose father, Toya, also rode bulls professionally — still had to undergo surgery and months of painful rehabilitation.

“There were hard, dark times,” he says. “The pain medicine was making it hard for me to hold on to any positive thoughts. I sort of wanted to end it all. But I got rid of the meds and started pushing myself to get better.”

  • For more on Bonner Bolton, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

While he recuperated, Bolton was approached by a modeling rep, who signed him to mega-agency IMG.

“I never thought I could do that as a career,” he says. “I’m extremely humbled by it.”

While DWTS has opened more doors, the competition has been tough because of his injuries.

Credit: ABC/Craig Sjodin

“It’s been challenging on my body,” says Bolton. “My neck hurts every day.”

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When his stint on the show ends, he hopes to pursue singing and acting — but still hasn’t given up on returning to the risky sport he loves.

“I was at the top of my game and in my prime, so it’s something that’s hard for me to let go of,” he says. But for now, “I’m just loving this crazy ride every step of the way.”

Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.