Living Life 8 Seconds at a Time
The San Antonio Stock Show rolls around every February bringing high quality entertainment. Yes, there is always an incredible lineup of entertainers and thrilling competitions, but there is one man who stands above the rest – he goes by the name of Leon Coffee.
His infectious smile and witty nature are all too familiar. Leon delights thousands every night and has been doing so for numerous years. Call him a rodeo clown or a bullfighter; either way he is a legendary figure in the world of rodeo. In fact, Leon was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of fame just last year (2018).
Will he be hanging up his green hat and wiping off the makeup for good anytime soon? Well, you can guarantee that even when he does, he won’t be far from the lifestyle. He describes himself as a simple country man and spends his days out on his ranch.
However, rather than fighting bulls, he is training his horses, something that has been tradition in his family for generations. In fact, he was out in his barn about to do just that when we spoke. Through fits of laughter, Leon shared his humble story of passion and joy.
This isn’t a traditional career path. How did you start out in this world of rodeo?
I was a bull rider and when you’re a bull rider, they don’t pay everybody. If they paid six places, I was seventh. I would win just enough to keep me hungry. I realized I needed to make a living, but I wasn’t going to make it at the rodeo. I showed up at the rodeo one time and one of the bullfighters didn’t make it in. They asked if I could help them out and said “All you gotta do is run fast and act goofy.” I said, “Excuse me, you mean I get to act goofy…and you’re going to pay me for this?” I used to get kicked out of school for that, and now they are going to pay me for it! It sounded like a heck of a deal. Me and friend of mine just kind of went out there playing around; we didn’t know what we were doing. Whenever someone got bucked off we would just run out there and help them out. It was just something we were doing for grins, and then I decided to get serious about it.
How did you create this iconic “Leon Coffee” persona everyone knows and loves?
When I first started, I met with a man named George Taylor and he explained to me that my identity in the arena has to be a distinct character. It had to be someone that connects to people in the front row just as he does people at the very top row. Once you decide what you are going to do and how you are going to look, you have to maintain that. Everybody has to recognize you from every seat in the arena. You have to take care of the people from way up at the top to the bottom. I take that to another level in how I treat people. I want everyone to feel like they are my best friend and I am their best friend.
What is it like having such a large fanbase?
My granddad told us to always be humble, and if you’re not you wasted your life. I try my best to be humble about any and everything. There are a lot of champions in this world, but all the fame and notoriety comes from someone else. If you praise yourself, you are the only one who likes you. I have always been the person who never said he was the best at anything. I always want to be in second place and striving to get to another point – which for me is making another fan. I have fans throughout generations of families. No matter who you are, where you are at or how much time it takes, everyone in this world deserves at least one minute of my time.
I tell these young guys, “Fans are built, they aren’t just there.” You have to do something that catches their attention and makes them want to watch you. That is the trick to the longevity in this business. It is being able to do something that people enjoy, can identify with and want to do – but don’t actually want to do. There is a thin line between bravery and idiocy, and I erase that line.
Putting smiles on faces is not something everyone can do. It is a gift and I thank the good Lord every day for it. The reason I haven’t quit as of today is because I believe that if I didn’t do what God gave me the gifts to do, it would be an abomination.
What is your favorite part of the rodeo experience?
Every eight seconds is a new story. Each scenario is different: a cowboy may buck off wrong and you may have to entertain that bull until they get that cowboy out of there. There is no script to follow; I don’t care what you do or how you do it. You could write a script, but there is one participant who won’t read it – the bull. You never know what he is thinking or how he is feeling. You just have to roll on and see what is happening. I live my life eight seconds at a time, and it has been a very enjoyable and satisfying job to be able to do that.
Did you ever have a moment where you wondered whether or not you should keep going?
Every time I was lying in a hospital bed I was thinking, “Man I don’t know if I can do this.” One time a bull hit me on the right side of my face, which had already been reconstructed from another incident years before. I literally died five times in one night. I said, “You know if I am a cat with nine lives, and I spent five of them in one night, I might need to slow down.” But it is an addiction to adrenaline that keeps me going and still makes me want to do it now.
Do you see there being a stopping point in the near future?
Yes, very soon. They asked me to stay on in San Antonio for this year, so we will see what happens. It has been 50 years from the first day I got on a bull to where I am now. Not many people can say they have done that. I have done 21 performances every year for 37 years just in San Antonio. That’s more performances than most guys have ever had in their whole career. I didn’t think I would be in it very long, but here I am today in the hall of fame.
By Gabrielle Hernandez
Photography by Janet Rogers