Leo Camarillo was a game changer. He revolutionized team roping, and impacted the rodeo industry in more ways than can be named. The Lion will go down in rodeo’s record books and lore in the company of the cowboy sport’s ultimate icons. There was no fiercer competitor than Leo Camarillo. There was also no greater mentor when it came to transforming talented young guns into champions. Just ask Tee Woolman.
Woolman is one of the rare rodeo rookies to win the world his freshman year. Three-time World Team Roping Titlist Tee won his first two gold buckles heading for Leo in 1980 and ’82.
[Related: ProRodeo Hall of Famer Leo Camarillo]
“When I first called Leo, he told me, ‘Son, I’m going to give you two or three rodeos, see how you do and we’ll go from there,” Tee remembers of Leo, who just headed to Heaven on December 30. “That’s how this is going to go. I said I was good with that. Our first day of practice was supposed to be at 8 o’clock in the morning. I rolled out at 8, and Leo was already in the arena and ready to go. He said, ‘Son, 8 o’clock means saddled and ready to rope. I have things to do.’
“That’s how I go at it to this day. All business, like Leo taught me. He instilled in me how to practice and be prepared. We were ready to win when we showed up. It was fun, but Leo was serious about making a living with his rope. You had to be prepared and on you’re A-game at all times. I wouldn’t say Leo was a perfectionist, but he was always working on his roping when we practiced. It didn’t always go great when we practiced, but he’d tell me, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m working on stuff.’ And he was right. Leo always stepped up, did whatever it took to win and performed his best when the money was up.”
There’s a point I must make here before moving along. When Tee won the world in 1980 and ’82, it was back before world champion headers and heelers were named separately. He with the most money won was the champ—whether it was one guy or two. In 1980, Leo finished second in the world team roping standings, just $1,337 behind Tee. In 1982, Leo was again second in the world only to Tee, and by a mere $129.
In other words, folks, if Leo’s heyday had been today, that’s two more gold buckles he’d have won on top of the four world team roping titles in 1972, ’73, ’75 and ’83, and the 1975 world all-around championship he did win. Leo gave up a shot at those gold buckles to rope with Tee at the Finals, knowing that made it impossible to pass his protege for the world championship.
[Related: 2019 Texas Hall of Fame Inductee Tee Woolman]
As Leo put it to me, “I’d already won a world championship. We won a lot of money, and to me it was about making a living. Our best chance to win at the Finals was to stick together. We knew the play. Why throw it all out the window and sacrifice the chance to win big money? I was the bridesgroom for the gold buckle, but it was financially rewarding. Tee winning the world was like my son winning it instead of me. It was a good decision.”
When it comes to team roping dominance at the National Finals Rodeo, Tee’s five NFR average crowns are second only to Leo’s record six. They won two of them together in 1980 and ’82. Fact is, there’s no telling how much Leo would have won, including additional all-around titles, if team roping had been a standard event with equal money when The Lion ruled the rodeo kingdom.
“Leo thrived on competing and being the best,” Tee said. “If there was pressure on him, he didn’t let it show. He never said, ‘I have to win, I need the money’ or anything like that. Leo stayed focused and prepared. And when we roped together, we always prepared for the next big situation, whether it was Salinas or roping at the Finals in Oklahoma City. We always worked to be ready for the next big stage.”
Tee and Leo were invited to compete as the Legend Exemptions at The American in Arlington, Texas, in 2018. It was a most memorable reunion for us all, and a spectacularly special time for Tee.
“As always, we worked to be prepared,” Tee said. “We didn’t have a lot of notice, but we made the most of the time we had. It was dirty, rotten cold the first day we practiced, and Leo hadn’t tried to rope that fast in awhile. But he was going to rise to the occasion. By day two, he was making his move. By show time, he was right on and ready.
“Leo was 72 and I was 62 when we roped at The American. I faced a little bit early, or we’d have been a little bit faster. But let me see another 72-year-old guy on that big stage do what he did. Leo is the greatest. By far. He brought team roping to the level it is today. Then guys like Jake (Barnes) and Clay (Cooper), and Speed (Williams) and Rich (Skelton) took it from there, and the guys today are doing the same. But Leo’s the one who started it all. I was just lucky to get to tag along.”
Leo really did love Tee like a son. I know this because he told me so with a tear in his eye and a smile on his face one time at Oakdale. And another time at Salinas. I’ve also been in on the inside joke all my life about Leo’s unique usage of the term “son.” Some appreciated it. Others not so much. Leo could use it as the most endearing possible compliment or as the most degrading possible insult, as he saw fit and appropriate. As a little girl who always appreciated his brutal honesty, I got a kick out of it both ways.
“Back in the day, Leo would tell me, ‘Son, you just stay within 30 feet of me and we’ll make it,’” Tee said. “I remember one time I was so sick I was puking my guts out, and Leo told me I better suck it up and keep up. So I did whatever it took to do that. When we were growing up, we played outside and roped all the time. We were always pretending to be some combination of Leo, Jerold (Leo’s brother), Reg (Leo and Jerold’s cousin) and H.P. (Evetts, who also won the world as part of this particular wolfpack). I wish I’d gotten the chance to say, ‘Leo, stay within 30 feet of me, we have more steers to rope.’
“Leo’s the guy who gave me a chance. For me to get to rope with The Greatest changed everything. If I’d gone with somebody else early in my career, who knows how my story would have ended. Leo showed me how to rodeo and compete at the highest level. Rodeo was Leo’s life. The Lion was, is and always will be The Greatest.”