Rodeo personalities: Clowning around with famed bullfighter and barrel man Leon Coffee

From near-death experiences to his love for RodeoHouston, the rodeo legend reflects on his decades-long career.

Leon Coffee poses in his dressing room at the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show
Leon Coffee poses in his dressing room at the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show (KPRC 2)

HOUSTONRodeo legend Leon Coffee began riding bulls as a child. Come high school, the self-described adrenaline junkie took to bullfighting. After decades performing at major rodeos across the country, acquiring dozens of injuries along the way, Coffee opted for a slightly safer occupation. Now, Coffee is a barrel man, or clown, for RodeoHouston. Donning face paint, the Blanco native provides family-friendly entertainment and comedic relief during the rodeo.

Coffee will perform at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo through March 22.

Could you introduce yourself and what it is you do?

“Leon Coffee, professional rodeo clown, former bullfighter, entertainer, barrel man, general jack of all trades and master of none.”

If you had to guess, how many rodeos would you say you’ve participated in?

"You have to understand, I’ve been doing this since 1969. Oh my Lord, how I’ve lost track. I have kept a lot of my old date books and I usually work 35 rodeos a year, 35 to 40 rodeos a year. I’ve worked a lot in my time.

What’s going through your head when you’re out there in the arena?

“When I was fighting bulls, it was a lot. I mean you got to think about some things. For one, the bull, two, the cowboy and three, the other guy that’s working with you. And those were the three things that you have to line up and know where they all are at any given point in time. And that’s a tough task. "

"In this business, you’re gonna get hit, you’re gonna get caught. It’s not, if you’re going to, it’s when you’re going to and how bad. That’s just gonna happen because you’ve got a participant in this that didn’t read the script and he weighs about 1,500 pounds. That’s basically how it works. You’ve go to go through a lot in your mind and be one jump ahead of everything from one jump behind. When you see something happening you better break and you got to react to it, not think about it because if you stop to think, you’re late.”

“One whole side of my face is basically plastic and wire and when I analyzed the tape on it, if I’d have been half a second earlier or a full second later, I’d never have gotten touched. That’s how close that is."

“And you know, I have to make myself smile because it’s, it’s all plastic and wire.”

Over the years, how many injuries have you sustained while working?

“I’ve had over 140 different breaks. It’s little stuff, big stuff and all the in-between, all the way up to completely dying in the arena five times in one night. That’s when I decided I was a cat with nine lives and I’d spent five of them so I’d better slow down.”

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Houston?


What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Texas?


What do you love about Rodeo Houston? What keeps you coming back year after year?

“You know a man asked me one time, he said ‘Which one is your favorite rodeo?’ And I asked him, I said ‘Do you have kids?’ And he said ‘yeah.’ And I said ‘Which one is your favorite?’ Same thing. I love them all for different reasons.”

“I don’t have to be anywhere. I go where I want to go. I want to be here. I’m not obligated to be at any place. I choose to be there because I go get a contract for it or they ask me to be there. I don’t have to accept it. Great rodeos are hard to turn down.”

“My career’s been very, very good. I’ve performed at almost every major rodeo in the United States. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve outlasted them, I’ve outlasted them all. There’s absolutely no one that started when I first started that’s still going.”

“It’s a great rodeo. I love it. I really really like being here. It’s an honor to be here as many years as I have. I’m just really close to having to stop. And that’ll be sad day.”

How has bullfighting and the rodeo changed over the span of your career?

“The guys fighting bulls here, in my heyday, I couldn’t hold a candle to them. I’ve watched the rodeo change from the primitive years to now. And when I cam, we thought we were the innovators and now, we’re like typewriters. No kid knows what a typewriter is anymore.”

“But, I’ve watched the evolution of the rodeo to where it’s just been unreal. It’s been a lot of fun watching it though.”

When do you think you’ll retire, if ever?

“I’m going to. I’m sure of that and I’m going to tell you, it might be really quick. My body is not holding up to the rigorous pace that it used to."

“At my age, I’m so honored to be here at this rodeo at my age.”

About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team as a community associate producer in 2019. During her time in H-Town, she's covered everything from fancy Houston homes to tropical storms. Previously, she worked at Austin Monthly Magazine and KAGS TV, where she earned a Regional Edward R. Murrow award for her work as a digital producer.