Q&A with PBR rodeo clown legend Leon Coffee (video)
Nov. 8, 2013 at 5:08 a.m.
After spending four decades in the dirt of the rodeo arena, Leon Coffee knows how to respond when a bull is coming his direction.
The Touring Pro Division Professional Bull Riders event is stopping Saturday in Goliad for a one-day event of showmanship and skill.
Coffee's been head to head with some of the meanest bulls in the Professional Bull Riding Association and even spent time as a barrel man during the '90s. He retired as a bull fighter in 1996.
Nowadays, he sticks to entertaining at different events. He said the first thing he'll do when he's up against a bull is run.
What has it been like for you to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and receive other awards for what you've done in the bull riding arena?
It's a great honor to have been here so long, I'm like the old man on the hill. I am the guy who's been around the longest and still going some. Not a whole lot, but it's a lot of fun. It's something that I've just been doing for so long, I'm glad that someone recognized that I've been doing it for so long and it's a great feeling. It's a great honor to have been here this long.
How old were you when you first got into the bull fighting and rodeo clowning business?
I've been doing it for so long; I can't even remember. It's been about 43 or 44 years that I've been clowning. I've been to the finals quite a few times and National Final Rodeo quite a few times. I've worked for the PBR since its inception really. I've been around.
How did you stay in shape to be able to do it for so long?
If you could follow me around for a day, you would know. I work. I'm out here right now - and it's about to rain - spraying ants and just cleaning up the place. It's just staying busy.
If you're going to rodeo, you're going to have to stay busy, and that's just all there is to it. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. But when you're doing like that and going hard, it keeps you in shape because you don't have time to get lazy. Here in the last three years, I've slowed down tremendously, but I used to go every day, all year long. My season used to start in January at Odessa, Denver, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and all those major rodeos, and when you work that many performances, you have to stay in shape. But you're doing it by working.
As far as a regimented training program, I don't have one. I'm glad I didn't because I would've burnt out a lot quicker.
In the past, you had some trademark moves and acts. Do you still have any of those that you keep hidden up your sleeves?
Those are for the young men. They've been retired. When you're fighting bulls you have certain moves you do, but I don't fight bulls anymore. If a bull comes around me, I'm leaving. I'm not jumping into anything but the crowd now.
Have you had any major accidents in the arena during your more than 40 years of clowning?
Oh yeah - to say the least. All of them are bad. And actually in 1986, I literally died one time - and actually, five times in one night. They kept bringing me back and bringing me back. But when you're a cat with nine lives and you spend five of them in one night, you tend to slow down a little bit. I did after that - I slowed down for a little while - then I got busy again.
Other than that, I'm not hot on the trail or doing anything real strenuous anymore, but I've been hurt quite a few times. I've had 142 broken bones - different breaks, not just bones. Bones in my foot, hands, legs, my back and my neck and all the ribs. I'm a pretty good doctor right now. I'll know what's wrong with me now if something happens because I've been there.
Did your touring take you anywhere other than the United States? Do you have a favorite place you've visited?
I've been to Mexico, Canada and a couple years ago went to France. I've been just about everywhere. I've rodeoed in 36 of the 48 adjacent states.
A guy asked me one time what's your most favorite rodeo and I asked him, 'Do you have kids?' He said, 'yeah.' And I said, 'Which one is your favorite?' It's the same thing. I love them all for different reasons. All of them are great to me as long as I get out alive. That's how I look at it.
In a video from 1982, you mentioned that it was your goal to make it to the national finals more than 11 times, which at the time was a record. Were you able to make it?
I didn't make it. Injuries were my biggest problem. You gotta be a tough son of gun to be there 11 times or work some really good rodeos where they don't have some really bad bulls. Everywhere I worked, they had some really bad bulls, and it's not if you get caught - it's when and how bad. So that's one reason why I just couldn't get there.
So how many were you able to make it to so far?
I've been to five national finals, and I was there three more times after that in different capacities, but I'm the one of only three men in the history of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association that's worked the National Final Rodeo as a bull fighter and went back as a barrel man.
And your kids, did they follow in your footsteps?
Oh no. They were rodeo'd out before they got into it. They have nothing to do with it. They roped quite a bit but they never really pursued anything like that. I really didn't want them fighting bulls or riding bulls or anything like that. Rodeoing is a hard game. It's a hard life. It's one that you really have to be bred and born for. You've got to love it to live it, and you've got to live it to love it. There's no in between. It's a deal where you've got to make a commitment and live it.
So now that you're spending less time touring the rodeo circuit, what are you doing?
I'm sitting at my house ... just ranching. I have a buddy of mine who I go up and drive the tractor around for a bit and plow a bunch of fields to get away from everybody and everything because my life has been one of continuous entertainment - I'm never off call. When I get to just get away, I go up to the house, and I hang out. Sometimes it's hard to get me away from my own place in Blanco.
In the same video, you mentioned that it was your childhood dream of owning a ranch, would you say your childhood dream has been fulfilled?
Yeah. It has. I'm sitting here in my barn looking at five really nice horses and my mule. She's 44 years old now. I fed them this morning and I'm just watching them eat, waiting for the rain to slow down so I can get something else done. It's that old ranching way of life, I love it. I've lived it most of my life and been on the road almost all of my life. So now when I can sit back and watch the grass grow, it's kind of a nice thing.
I just like being home, where I am now. My nearest neighbor is a mile away and my next neighbor is about mile away. It's just really nice. I could stay out here, relax, feed the deer, watch my horses get fat.
For kids who see you in the arena, and say to themselves, 'I really want to do what Leon Coffee does for a living,' what do you say to them?
Take up golf. It's a lot easier on your body. I've trained a lot of kids to fight bulls over the years, but for a kid that wants to do this, all I have to say is one thing: It's a long hard road. When you step out here, you have to be on your game 100 percent. No ifs, ands or buts about it. You're gonna have to be extremely good and talented to stay in it as long as I have.
I've seen thousands of guys come and go. It's not hard to get a job, but its hard to keep one. That's the most difficult part - being committed to the work of entertainers. It is a job to entertain people because if you bomb on a joke, you're out there by yourself. If you're fighting bulls, there's a lot of lives depending on you, lot of responsibility.
When I quit fighting bulls, it was because I was not vain enough to stay in there when I knew I had lost a step. That step could cost someone their life or bodily injury. I'm trying to make my mind do what my body needs to and it's not working, so I needed to step out of there. That's when I decided I need to stop fighting bulls.
Those bulls can fight everyday. They lift each other up with their heads and they weigh 1,500 pounds. When those bulls hit you, it's like standing between me and "Big Papi" (David Americo Ortiz Arias) and a baseball and letting him hit a baseball through you. It's that kind of devastation. It's like getting hit by one of the best linebackers in the United States. Head on. And you have to stand there and take that. You don't know when you're going to get it, you're not ready for it and its a game of you have the ready to do this or don't get in it. It's a tough life. It's kinda like what Willie Nelson said in a song one time it's not a good life, but its my life.
When you hit Goliad, what can people expect to see from you?
I don't have a clue. I'm going to be walking and talking and talking about everything and I take no prisoners. At the PBR, there's really not any room to do any specialty action because it's a fast-paced deal and you're dealing with bulls. But I'll be out there entertaining but I don't know what I'm gonna do or what I'm gonna say. But it's gonna be good. I'll be there, you bet.