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He’s the Last Line of Defense Against Raging Bulls



Justin Rumford’s “monkey suit” isn’t a tuxedo. His monkey suit is a monkey suit. Gorilla, actually. It is part of the 34-year-old rodeo clown’s act. He also packs an Evel Knievel outfit, a Spider-Man suit and his old high school basketball uniform, which he admits is a bit tight.

Mr. Rumford’s main job at rodeos is to get the crowd pumped up before the show and provide comedy entertainment in between events. He says modern rodeo is more rock concert than cattle show and isn’t just for cowboys.

“When rodeo people travel, we don’t wear boots and spurs and hats everywhere. We wear shorts and a T-shirt like everybody else,” he says. “The other day, there were 30 of us on a plane flying home from Sacramento, and not one cowboy hat.”

Mr. Rumford is on the road 11 months of the year, crisscrossing the country in his 44-foot trailer following the rodeo calendar. He flies home to Ponca City, Okla., when he has several days off in a row.

He fits most of his gear in two duffels by Buck’s Bags, which designs luggage for the rodeo set. His Dopp kit includes clown-white makeup, eyeliner pencils and baby powder to prevent the makeup from sweating off. To remove makeup, he uses baby wipes, which he borrows from his 18-month-old triplets. He performs in Nike Air Max sneakers.

Mr. Rumford, whose family has been in professional rodeo for three generations, is also a barrel man, the last line of defense between a fallen rider and 1,600-pounds of angry bull.

Clowns used to be responsible for distracting a bull once a rider has been thrown. These days, cowboy protection is done by young athletes called bullfighters, who sprint, leap and dive between bull and fallen rider.

But if the bullfighters are having trouble controlling an animal, Mr. Rumford will scurry over in his barrel, made of strengthened aluminum, and incite a charge. He ducks inside right before impact.

“I can get the bull to keep hitting the barrel, and that gives the guys time to get someone who’s hurt out of a jam,” Mr. Rumford says.

It is no scarier than driving a car, once you know what you’re dealing with, he says. Rodeo lineups are typically made available two weeks ahead of time, and Mr. Rumford studies the livestock competition websites for stats on both bulls and riders. He meets with the bullfighters before each performance to discuss strategies for each pairing.

“Bucking bulls develop a pattern. We know their mannerisms,” he says. “They’re like people: some are mean, some are not, some go to the left, some go to the right.”

Before becoming a clown, young Mr. Rumford—known in rodeo circles as Rump—was a steer wrestler and saddle bronc rider. He competed in high school in Kansas and earned a rodeo scholarship to Northwestern Oklahoma State, where he graduated in 2004 with a business degree and entered the professional rodeo circuit.

A knee injury and a declining record led Mr. Rumford to hang up his spurs in 2008. Of all the jobs in rodeo, no one in the family had ever been a clown, so in 2010 he gave it a try. By 2012, he was named Rodeo Clown of the Year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, a title he’s won three times.

“It’s the most awesome job. I work for myself, the pay is great, you get to pick where you go, and unlike when you’re competing, I can tell you every day I’ll be working from now through next year.”

Rodeo clowns can make from $150,000 to $200,000 a year, he says, if you hustle. Since January, Mr. Rumford has done 64 performances in 15 cities, including in Texas, North Carolina and California. He is running a clown camp this summer in Cody, Wyo. His sponsors include Cinch Jeans, Original Coors and he recently made a Holiday Inn commercial.

He says his favorite moment in any rodeo is right before the start of the bull-riding event. “When the music is cranked up and the crowd is going crazy, there’s this energy,” he says. “No matter what kind of day you’re having, in that moment you just feel pure peace.”

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