‘The object of the game is to protect the bull rider at all costs,’ says rodeo clown Leon Coffee

Coffee, one of the most accomplished rodeo clowns in the business, is now teaching new generations in the industry.

By Michael MarksMarch 1, 2024 3:40 pm,

No one likes being called a clown, which seems an injustice given that at a place like Rodeo Houston, they are heroes; a big part of their job involves saving lives.

If you go back to the early part of the 20th century, rodeo show promoters hired clowns to keep the crowd entertained between competitions and during delays. But it wasn’t long before the job evolved into a much more serious profession, requiring unique skills, physical strength, extremely sharp wits and no small amount of courage – frequently putting themselves in great danger for the protection of others.

Leon Coffee is not just an expert rodeo clown, he is one of the most revered and beloved in the business, according to Texas Monthly. And he’s been teaching others what it takes to be, as he puts it, “one badass bullfighting sumbuck.” Coffee joined the Standard live from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Now, are you good with the term “rodeo clown,” or is there a better one? 

Leon Coffee: I’m the last of the Mohicans in that category. Rodeo clowns were entertainers and had to also fight bulls, which means save cowboys from from bulls.

But there was a split in that when we created the Wrangler bullfighters competition. And there’s a lot of guys out there just for the protection of the bull riders. And then there’s a lot of guys out there just for the entertainment. It’s hard to combine those two. And I’m the last of that group. 

You’re one of the most accomplished rodeo clowns in the business. What does it take to be good at what you do? 

A lot of preparation. But I had a guy tell me one time, he said, “there’s a thin line between bravery and idiocy.” And we erased the line. 

I wouldn’t imagine you feel too afraid getting in the ring anymore. 

No. Well, I’ll be honest with you: If you don’t get butterflies when you walk in there, you need to quit. Because a bull can – they lift each other with their heads. They can hit you with 2,000 pounds of pressure. That’s enough pressure to take a man’s head completely off. 

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I’ve heard that when it comes to injuries in the rodeo, this is one of the most dangerous, right? 

Oh, yeah. I’ve had 143 different breaks. I can tell you when it’s going to rain – you know, every bone in my body aches. But if you look at the bullfighting industry as it sits today, every one of those broken bones are mistakes.

A lot of times you can get in there and get out without any complication to you or the guy that’s involved in it. But sometimes a cowboy can dart one way, and you need to be going that same way. And he hits you and the the wreck is on.

But the object of the game is to protect the bull rider at all costs. And a lot of times, we have to offer ourselves up as the sacrificial lamb in it.

Wow. Now, I understand you’re teaching new generations, right? 

I’ve taught schools for quite a few years, and there’s a lot of students who’ve come up. I’ve helped train three guys that wound up being world champions in the bullfighting industry.

But the bullfighting industry has evolved to where it is athletic prowess that keeps you alive out there. We used to go out there and if you got hit going one way you’d get up and go back the other way. Since then, we’ve learned that there’s different ways to make things work and how to do things, but there’s no set way because there’s a partner in this dance that didn’t read the book.

And he has no sense of reasoning, and he’s got a baseball bat stuck out of each side of his head and the fear of God in his eye wanting to annihilate you off the face this earth. And he runs 40 miles an hour and the fastest man in the world can only run 20, and I ain’t him. 

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