If you want to get the gold medal for most enthusiastic cheerleader in the Tee Woolman and Leo Camarillo cheering section at RFD-TV’s The American, you’re going to have to outshout the girl who worked the chutes at Camarillo Roping Schools as a kid. Leo’s been one of her dad’s best friends since long before she was born, and her loyalty to these two industry icons rivals the fanged fierceness of The Lion himself.
Tee and Leo—who are this year’s Team Roping Legends Exemptions at The American—first rocked the roping and rodeo world together in 1980, when The Master (Leo) literally got behind The Kid (Tee) as his heeler, and helped get the rookie heading revolutionary his first gold buckle. Just as Leo finished raising Raymond and Tootsie Barnes’s son, Jake, on the finer points of Rodeo Business 101 and gangster gamesmanship, he did the same for Oliver and Wilma Woolman’s son, TeeSquantnee. In Cherokee, TeeSquantnee translates to “Boy of the Woods.” About 10 years after Tee attended one of those Camarillo Roping Schools at 14, The Lion made of man of him.
“Tee’s like a son to me,” said Leo, who less than a month ago celebrated his 72 birthday and will this Sunday do American battle behind his now 61-year-old header. “There’s nobody I’d rather rope with on this stage than Tee. I’ve heeled so many steers behind him, and I know his confidence.”
It isn’t often four-time World Champion Team Roper and 1975 World Champion All-Around Cowboy Leo is at a total loss for words. But when he got the call from Randy Bernard inviting him to reunite the Dream Team at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, he was uncharacteristically speechless.
“It’s a miracle,” Leo said. “I felt like I was entering the cemetery, taking one more step to my grave, and just as I was taking that last step the phone rang and the voice on the other end of it said, ‘Wait! You have one more steer to run.’
“It’s kind of like that (Toby Keith) song, ‘I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.’ To be my age and get called to rope a steer for a million dollars is absolutely a miracle. You can’t say no. A guy like me ropes his whole life to win a million dollars. To get to run one steer for a million? Hell yeah, I’m going to try it.’”
On top of his five gold buckles, Leo owns the record for most Wrangler National Finals Rodeo team roping average titles at six (in addition to his three gold buckles, Tee has five NFR team roping average crowns and one in the steer roping from the National Finals Steer Roping), including two with Tee in 1980 and ’82.
Because it was back before world champion headers and heelers were named separately, Leo’s decision to stay hooked at that first Finals for their team meant a forfeit of the world championship for himself. Tee became one of only six rookies ever to win a gold buckle in his first full year out on the rodeo trail. It was a tough decision, but one Leo has never regretted.
“Tee and I were a team that clicked together all year long,” Leo remembers. “Our best chance to win at the Finals was to stick together. We knew the play. Roping together was why we were there contending for the title. Why throw it all out the window and sacrifice the chance to win big money?
“I’d already won a world championship. We won a lot of money, and to me it was about making a living. I was the bridesgroom for the gold buckle, but it was financially rewarding. The champs used to get a year’s free pass for the following year on Frontier Airlines, and under the circumstances they decided to give us both a pass. That was almost worth the gold buckle for a guy making a living with a rope. Tee winning the world was like my son winning it instead of me. It was a good decision.”
Their preparatory window is short, as they only have this week to turn back the clock nearly 40 years and get their groove back. California-native Leo—who’s spent many of his years in the West Coast Cowboy Capital of the World in Oakdale, where his fellow World Champion Team Roper and ProRodeo Hall of Famer brother, Jerold, still lives—got straight on a Texas-bound plane to get to today’s team roping hotbed in the Cowboy Capital of the World in Stephenville. Leo, who currently lives in Maricopa, Arizona, is taking the week off from his job as a water-truck driver for an Arizona construction company.
“I’m driving a water truck in the rain one day, and all of a sudden it’s time to shift gears and work at being 3,” Leo said. “I’m preparing as we speak. I was one of the first to introduce a 5-second run to the sport, and now I have to try to be 3. If you’re a professional team roper today, a 3-second run is what you work at every day. I’ve been 3 before, but it’s been awhile. Time to knock the rust off my ropes and fire.”
Ralph and Pilar Camarillo’s son isn’t yet sure which horse he’ll ride in Dallas come Sunday. But one of the first calls in his scouting process was to Brazilian roping phenom Junior Nogueira.
“I’ll be riding the best one I can get on,” Leo said. “I’m headed straight to Stephenville, because if you don’t start there, sooner or later you’ll end up there. That’s where it’s at for team roping today.
“I’m really anxious to get back in the arena with Tee for a weeklong jam session. Champions are champions. We know the play. It’s just a matter of working hard and executing.”
So, Lion, how do you like your chances for the pair of silver foxes with a pretty grand total of 133 years under their belts?
“I’m not a betting guy, but if I was I’d have to pick us,” Leo said. “I know what I’m going to put into it, and I invented crossfire. If I can get my shot, it’s nothing I’ve never seen. It’s one steer. It’s about pulling up to the three-point line and taking your best shot.
“Getting to rope at The American is about like somebody walking up and handing me a million bucks. The opportunity itself is worth a million to me. You know me—I don’t dish out undeserved compliments. But this is truly amazing. Never doubt the heart of a champion. We might lose a lot of things physically. That’s just Father Time for you. But champions never lose their confidence. That’s just how we’re made.”