The man in the can | VailDaily.com
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The man in the can

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Leon Coffee has barrels of fun.

“This is a great place to be next week,” he said as the 67th annual Eagle County Fair and Rodeo approaches.

Coffee makes his living as a barrel man ” the guy in the rodeo arena dressed like a clown ” cracking jokes and sometimes bones. Some cowboys owe him some money, most owe him their lives. When a particularly cranky bull wheels around and wants to stomp a cowboy, it’s Coffee who draws the bull’s attention away from the cowboy and to the barrel where he’s standing.

It’s about then that Coffee’s insurance agent begins to cringe.

“I’ve been knocked out more in the barrel than I ever did fighting bulls,” he said.

If he does his job, the cowboy lives to get paid off with round of applause from the crowd, possibly a round of drinks from the other cowboys and maybe a check for a winning ride.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Coffee said. “Sometimes I’m the mouse and sometimes I’m the cat.”

That’s the way life is when you’re in the barrel and not at the top of the food chain. Coffee loves it because you’re never sure when the chain will break.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. It’s an adrenaline rush and I’m an adrenaline junkie. They have some bulls this year at the fair that will come see me.”

Coffee earned his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card in 1973 and competed in amateur rodeos five years before that ” 38 years total.

He started his career as a barrel man, stopped for a while to be a bullfighter ” the cowboys who ride bulls, not the Spanish variety. His knees couldn’t take the pounding any more and came back to the barrel.

For those keeping score at home, the tally is 14 knee surgeries and 134 broken bones. Some of those bones have been broken twice.

“I decided if I wanted to stay in rodeo I could work a barrel,” Coffee said. “No one ever told me how tough it was to be in that barrel.”

It’s been, as he says, a life of ups and downs. When a bull launches a barrel and he’s in it, ups and downs are the two directions he’s certain to go.

“From the arena floor, I’ve been above the announcer’s stand,” Coffee said. “I see the announcer on my way up and on my way back down. The flight isn’t tough, it’s the landing. When you hit the ground you’re a little disoriented and you’re not sure where you are, but the bull is and he’s usually ready for more.”

Vail, Colorado


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