LEON COFFEE, PERHAPS THE MOST REVERED and beloved clown in the history of American rodeo, had already had about enough of my crap well before I led a rank and irate fighting bull named Ghostbuster directly to the spot near the arena wall where Leon was catching his breath. I was running, as the real cowboys present that day liked to say, “pie-eyed”—in other words, scared witless—and Ghostbuster, a big gray Brahman with an ugly black hump, was about five feet behind me and closing in, kicking up dirt clods, slinging bull snot, and bellowing like the fiery furnaces of hell. Somebody was going to get messed up, no question about it, and my only thought was that I needed to get up and over that wall. Unfortunately, that wall was right by Leon.
This was not the first misstep of my twelve-hour-old career as a rodeo clown, although it was the one fraught with the most risk to human life. It was two days after Christmas, 1988, and I was Leon’s lone remaining student at a rodeo school in Wichita Falls he was running with Butch Kirby, a former world champion bull rider who was teaching four students of his own how to ride. I was the only college boy enrolled, a kid from the suburbs whose sum total exposure to things country consisted of dipping snuff, watching The Dukes of Hazzard, and listening to Hank Junior when I went muddin’ in my Toyota pickup. I was between semesters my senior year at the University of Texas in Austin, with no clue what to do after graduation nor any realistic sense of what I couldn’t. I figured that my history degree would be no greater hindrance to a rodeo career than anything else, so to the rodeo I turned.
The bull-riding students, on the other hand, had their rodeo bona fides. There was an area shop teacher who’d won $19,000 that year riding bulls and a seventeen-year-old high school kid from Vernon who wanted to ride bulls so badly he’d told his disapproving mother he was going hunting for the weekend. One cowboy drove his wife and Border collie all the way from Virginia in a little Corolla, sleeping in the car in hotel parking lots along the way. These guys had all actually tasted real rodeo, even if it was just one great ride, and they had to have more. I was the only one without a hat.
And then there was Leon. Though he stood barely six feet tall counting the tall foam crown of his gimme cap, he towered over the bulls and the rest of us. His constant popping off was the soundtrack of the three-day tutorial, and his dances with the bulls were hands down the highlights. While the cowboys insisted on calling him a bullfighter—as if the word “clown” was somehow demeaning—Leon was sure enough of what he was doing that he didn’t need to split that hair. “Do I wear makeup, and am I funny?” he asked. “Well, I guess you’d have to call that a clown. And am I one badass, bullfighting sumbuck? Why don’t you tell me.” The paraphrased piece of Scripture that he suggested I turn to when things looked bleak with the bulls summed him up to the letter: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the baddest cat in the valley.”
His “school” entailed more lab work than class time. All we received in the way of a lecture was two hours in a hotel room at the Wichita Falls La Quinta watching bull rides from that year’s National Finals. Butch and his students sat on one side of the room talking about the bull riders, and Leon, a man from Oklahoma named Tom, and I talked bullfighting on the other. Leon didn’t instruct us on applying makeup or telling his favorite manure jokes or diving into a barrel; this was about protecting cowboys, and the real education came in the arena. The student bull riders needed the student clowns to take care of them when they sailed off those veteran bulls. By the time I reintroduced Leon to Ghostbuster, I’d firmly established that I wasn’t up to the task.
I hung back too far from the bulls after they left the chute. I wasn’t able to turn them around when they spun into the cowboy’s riding hand, a most severe failing on my part because it greatly enhanced the likelihood that a cowboy would get hung up or stomped. When a bull carried a cowboy out away from the chutes, I was too slow to keep up, and when a cowboy actually hit the ground, I was entirely too willing to let Leon be the one to get between him and the bull. I’d even worn the wrong shoes, turf cleats that clodded up with that soft arena dirt, rather than the standard baseball cleats that might have provided some actual traction. Lucky for me, not to mention the cowboys, Leon picked up the slack.
Which struck me as a good deal for everybody. Leon was 38 years old, 15 years into a career that continues to this day, and his name was already carved into the pantheon of the great American rodeo bullfighters: Quail Dobbs, Rob Smets, Miles Hare, Rick Chatman, and Leon Coffee, all immortals in an art form borne of fragile mortality. The bull riders whose hides he saved night in and night out loved him, as did the fans in the stands and the kids in the schools and the hospitals he visited at stops on the pro rodeo tour. He was fast, fearless, and wonderfully full of beans in a profession where men who wanted for any of the above would at best be forgotten. At worst they’d be killed.
But Leon hadn’t planned on fighting any bulls this particular trip. He was fresh from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee earlier in