Snake River Stampede: Barrelman's job not all fun and games

Though rodeo clowns entertain, they're also the first in line to ensure rider safety.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comJuly 17, 2013 

  • STAMPEDE FAN FACTS

    • Rodeo begins at 7:30 each night Wednesday-Friday, pre-rodeo festivities begin at 6:30.

    • Matinee begins at noon Saturday, pre-rodeo at 11:15 a.m.; finals at 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    Tickets: Available at ictickets.com; adults $14-$38, seniors (65-plus) $12-$36, juniors (3-12) $10-$34 forevenings. Adults $11-$22, seniors $9-$20, juniors $7.50-$18 (free general admission in upper bowl) for Saturday matinee. Parking is free at the Idaho Center.

    Wednesday: Stampede For The Cure Night (fans, competitors are urged to wear pink to help raise funds and awareness for breast cancer prevention)

    Thursday: Patriot Night

    Friday: Hometown Hero Night; Man Up Crusade (domestic violence prevention awareness); post-rodeo concert

    Saturday: Matinee at noon (alcohol-free session); finals at 7:30 p.m.

— Part athlete, part comic, part animal wrangler and part medic, J.J Harrison has found being a rodeo clown a one-of-a-kind mix, even if the face paint underlies the importance of his job.

Harrison is part of the longtime rodeo tradition of clowns, also known as barrelmen or bullfighters these days. Once a schoolteacher in Walla Walla, Wash., Harrison is the clown front and center at this week's Snake River Stampede, equipped with a hands-free microphone during the competition.

"It is pretty interesting, trying to entertain and make people laugh, but at the same time you're out there trying to prevent the competitors from getting seriously hurt," Harrison said.

Though their jobs are to no doubt entertain - Harrison is quick to make a joke, and tossed a football with fans at the Idaho Center during breaks in the action - the rodeo clowns are also quick to jump to the aid of a bucked-off rider or draw the attention of the animal afterward, having the 1,000-pound animal set its sights on him instead of the rider.

“I’ve seen broken necks, had to hold wounds closed — sometimes you’re the first one there and that can be a scary position to be in, but we’re there to keep them calm until the professionals can get in,” Harrison said.

A former rodeo competitor himself, Harrison dabbled as a clown starting in 2005 while he was a teacher, then left the classroom in 2008 to move on to the arena full-time.

“At first, I had a buddy that put on some bullring, and he said, ‘Hey, you’ve been around rodeo, you’re a goofy guy, you should be a clown,’ and I said, ‘Clowns are stupid,’ — but sure enough, I loved it,” Harrison said. "A few years later in class, I was telling kids to do what they love, and one kid asked me why I wasn’t doing rodeo. It was a good point.”

Harrison's position as barrelman (he'll draw attention from a bull and jump into the reinforced barrel, if needed) is aided this week by two bullfighters, Lucas Littles and Will O’Connel, who help keep the arena floor free of debris and get the bull back into the chute after the ride.

“Sometimes it’s a little crazy, it’s never predictable, but it’s always exciting," Littles said. “We know we can’t prevent every injury, but it’s our priority, and we do everything we can.”

Out on the arena floor as much as anyone, and with the makeup and bright clothing, Harrison knows most eyes are on him between rides — and that’s the way he likes it.

“Not everyone knows the ins and outs of the rodeo. Most might go to one or two a year, but they do know about entertainment,” Harrison said. “So, if I can be that bridge, that’s what drives me. That’s what I really enjoy about it."

See below for video footage of Harrison performing a comedy routine at the 2013 National Western Stock Show Rodeo in Denver.

Dent shines on first night

Steven Dent scored 87 points to lead the bareback competition on Tuesday's opening night of the Stampede. The Mullen, Neb., native once nearly ran for 2,500 yards as a running back in high school and was recruited as a walk-on by Kansas and Colorado State. He also found his comfort on horseback after a bull broke his jaw in 11 places in high school.

“I really wanted to be good at two events (bareback, saddle bronc) and not mediocre at three,” said Dent, No. 13 in the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association's world all-around rankings.

Other leaders after the first night of competition were Dakota Eldridge (steer wrestling; 3.8 seconds), Ty Blasingame and Matt Zancanella (team roping; 5.2 seconds), Sterling Crawley (saddle bronc, 82 points), Cody Saculla (tie-down roping; 9.2 seconds), Sammi Bessert (barrel racing; 15.86 seconds) and Trey Benton III (bullriding; 89 points).

Dave Southorn: 377-6420; Twitter: @IDS_southorn

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