Leo Camarillo was a roping revolutionary. He changed the team roping game and rodeo business forever, and his legendary roar will be revered in rodeo lore for the rest of time. There has been no more driven trailblazer or fierce competitor than The Lion—ever. He out-studied, out-worked and out-smarted everyone, and did not dignify excuses. When it came to breaking the cowboy game all the way down to find a better way, Leo was relentless and refused to take no for an answer.
Having known and loved The Lion all my life—Leo used the term “familia” to describe friendships with lucky families like mine—I’m comfortable in saying that Leo had a love-hate relationship with humanity. He was brutally honest and told it like it was. If the truth hurt, that was on you. Naturally, that offended some. But if Leo was your friend, he was all-in. And I can name no cowboy who took on and took in more talented young guns and made champions out of them than The Lion. The protégés Leo mentored in his lifetime truly is a Headers Who’s Who.
Leo left this world on Dec. 30, 2020, just shy of what would have been his 75th birthday on Jan. 25, 2021. Ralph and Pilar Camarillo’s first-born, five-time Champ of the World, record six-time National Finals Rodeo average champ and original ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee son left behind brother Jerold, sister Christie, wife Sue, sons Wade (whom Leo had with his second wife, Sharon) and Trey, and daughter Cassie. They are devastated, and they are not alone. Since Leo’s pandemic-related passing, I’ve had epic conversations with some of his proudest, most magnificent partners and masterpieces. We laughed. We cried. We all loved Leo, and he left the most memorable mark on us all.
Tee Woolman won two of his three world championships heading for Leo—the first as a rookie in 1980.
“Leo instilled in me how to practice and be prepared,” said Tee, who also won a couple NFR average crowns with Leo, and is second only to Leo’s record six with five NFR average crowns. “That’s how I go at it to this day. All business, like Leo taught me. We were ready to win when we showed up. It was fun, but Leo was serious about making a living with his rope.”
That’s a fact. Leo giving up gold buckles to rope with Tee at the Finals—because Tee had more won going into the NFR, and back then the guy(s) who won the most won the world, whether that meant one or two world titlists—says so. As The Lion told me at Salinas one time, “I’d already won a world championship. Tee and I 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 brides-groom 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.”
Tee showed up on the professional rodeo scene with enough swagger to sometimes push back on The Lion. Leo got a kick out of that. Tee’s course was changed forever by The Camarillo Effect, and he’s grateful.
“Leo’s the guy who gave me a chance,” said Tee, who at 62 and with 72-year-old Leo on the back side brought the 2018 crowd at The American to its feet with their clutch 5.06-second reunion run at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. “And he thrived on competing and being the best. 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.”
Cousin Reg was literal familia. Reg and Leo won the NFR average three years in a row, from 1969-71—Leo actually won it four years in a row, also including 1968 with California’s Billy Wilson, and Reg struck again in 1975 with Jerold.
“It’s a little ironic that no one was more intense or driven than Leo when we were younger, and now I can’t talk about him without getting choked up,” said Reg, who’s 11 months older than Leo, which made them the same age for a month every year. “When we were teenagers, Leo would say he wanted to “get out of this ghetto,” which is how he saw working on the ranch (Ralph Camarillo ran California ranches, which meant hard work for modest pay). Leo and Jerold grew up with the goal of roping for a living.
“Me and Leo’s first big roping together was the Riverside Rancheros eight-steer. We didn’t have any money, and our horses were pretty ranchy. We won second, and away we went. It all started with Leo writing a hot check to get us entered, but we roped our way out of it and made good on that check before we left town.”
Leo and Jerold joined the PRCA-predecessor Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1968, the year Reg finished a two-year Army stint in Vietnam. When Reg returned, he was based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. He spent a lot of time roping with the Yates family in nearby Pueblo.
“When I finished up at Fort Carson, I drove back to California,” Reg said. “The Cow Palace was going on (in San Francisco), so I stopped in to say hello to my cousins. Leo said, ‘You need to join the RCA next year, and we’re roping together.’ That shocked me, because I never thought I roped that good. I think what Leo saw was that I caught a lot. My roping wasn’t all that fancy, but Leo was looking for heel shots. And I could get steers turned.
“Leo pushed me. And I worked to have better horses to have out in front of him. I could easily have never rodeoed, but Leo wasn’t taking no for an answer. Leo wasn’t for everyone. But people who liked Leo loved him. I dearly loved Leo.”
And then there was the guy Leo called “H,” as in 1974 World Champion Team Roper H.P. Evetts. You won’t find H on the list of past NFR average champs. But he will go down in roping and rodeo history as one of the first and most masterful reachers. H roped with both Leo and Jerold, sometimes both at the same rodeos when they were go-twice. He headed for Jerold at the Finals in 1974, and Leo and Jerold finished second and third in the world. So yes, if it were today and separate world heading and heeling championships were awarded, that’s yet another gold buckle Leo would have added to his collection of four in the team roping, dated 1972-73, ’75 and ’83, and the 1975 world all-around title.
“I’ve known Leo since I was 6 years old, so he was kind of like a big brother to me,” said H.P., who’s 69 now. “I’ll never know what he saw in me, but Leo was God. Leo was rodeo. And those years I played for Team Camarillo were the best times of my life. I respected Leo and what he did. He was it, he was right about it, and he stood up for it. Leo made the rules. And he worked at his roping religiously.
“Leo was The Man. I wanted to rope, and he was my peak. I couldn’t go any higher than heading for The Lion. As much as Leo expected of everyone around him, he had such a big heart. I was a reacher, and I’d miss. Leo would say, ‘We’ll get ’em next time. Just keep doing what you do. That’s why you’re here.’ That’s why I loved Leo. I told him, ‘Don’t you change, either.’ I loved Leo.”
Seven-time Champ of the World Jake Barnes went from heeling for Allen Bach to Team Leo. Jake roped with The Lion at the 1983 NFR, and helped Leo close that year’s world championship before spending all of 1984 (including the NFR, which cost Jake a shot at the title) with Leo. Jake says lessons learned from The Lion set the stage for his dream-team dynasty with Clay Cooper.
“Leo was the ultimate competitor,” Jake said. “I moved into his trophy room for the year and a half I roped with him. I was a diamond in the rough when I started roping with Leo. I was just roping and having fun. Leo taught me to look at roping as a business, and we worked hard at it as a team. Roping with Leo was not playtime. Leo managed our team, and practice was very structured. We worked on our run and our horsemanship every single day.
“Leo had a different approach to his game than anything I’d ever seen. A lot of his mental game came from Muhammad Ali. I didn’t always like Leo. Leo could be very intimidating. But I always respected him. And if you were on The Lion’s team, he would kill for you and die for you. I attribute the success in that next chapter of my life with Clay to the time I spent with Leo. Clay and I took a page out of Leo’s playbook, and roped 100 steers a day. Before I roped with Leo, a world championship was in the back of my mind. But I had no idea how to get there. Leo trained me to be a champion, and gave me the winning edge. Leo was the ultimate warrior. Leo was The Master.”
Just when I thought I knew everything about Clay, “There are things I do that are absolutely a result of trying to mimic Leo, from the way I try to ride a horse to the way I conduct myself in the arena during competition. I don’t show emotion in the arena because Leo didn’t. Leo just did his job. God gave me the dream, desire and abilities to be a roper. But Leo was the mark style-wise, and no one was more competitive. Leo’s four world team roping titles were also the mark when I came onto the scene, because he had the record. Leo has a really big place in my life. Leo was my roping hero, and the iconic symbol of what I wanted to do with my life. The Lion was an all-time great. Leo Camarillo was the epitome of success.”
I’m no liar, and Leo was no diplomat. When I was a kid, I was taking ropes off at the back end at a Camarillo Roping School, and a student asked Leo what he thought of his horse. “If he was mine, I’d cut his head off,” Leo said. And God knows, Leo dragged more than one lippy gate guy across the cowboy parking lot by the rearview mirror of his truck. Like, it really happened.
The Lion gave Dee Pickett his first big rodeo break in the late 1970s.
“Leo gave me a shot before I was really ready,” said Dee, who won the world in 1984 with Mike Beers. “I was green as grass. I’d just played three and a half years of college football. I didn’t go back and finish school (at Boise State) because my idol asked me to rope. Leo and I won the first rodeo we entered—Livermore (California) in 1978. Nobody loved to win more than Leo. We worked so hard. Leo deserved to win, and I learned a lot from The Lion. Leo was one of a kind, and he was my hero. Rodeo is a great life, but it’s a hard life. Leo was a hero to us all.
“I’ll never forget Leo’s constant calls to Procom, back before cell phones. We’d go to his office, he’d dial Procom on the landline and say, ‘C11032S, Leo Camarillo, the greatest of all time.’ Then he might ask the operator what time Deadwood closed or what time it was, and hang up. I’m a Leo Camarillo fan, and I’ll always appreciate all he did for me.”
Leo drafted Bobby Hurley out of Arkansas when he first hit the professional rodeo scene in the mid-1980s. Leo rode Hurley horses in the tie-down and team roping when he won the first-ever Timed Event Championship at the Lazy E in 1985.
“Leo practiced for that very first Timed Event at our house, and ended up taking some of the horses he practiced on,” said two-time World Team Roping Titlist Hurley. “It was all about preparation with Leo, and he took me on as a 21-year-old kid. I didn’t see things how he did at first. But whatever Leo said was The Gospel. He was Leo Camarillo, the God of Roping. And when you roped with Leo, he had your back. Leo told me one time that the difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional can go catch when all you have to do is catch to win. There’s a lot of truth to that.
“Long before cell phones, Leo had an uncanny ability to find rodeo arenas. In the middle of Los Angeles or the middle of nowhere, Leo could always sniff out a rodeo arena. It was like he had a Rodeo Arena GPS in his brain. As for his direct style of communicating, it wasn’t always pretty how Leo put things. But it was always the truth as he saw it. Leo was all business. Leo loved to rope, and he knew how to make it pay. I owe a lot to Leo, and roping with him was like playing on Michael Jordan’s team. Leo was The Man. And he molded a lot of us into champions.”
Leo was a living legend. He’s gone on ahead to the Great Quien Sabe now, but The Lion’s cowboy influence will be everlasting.
“The Camarillos are the kings of team roping, and I always heard about them when I was growing up,” said 2016 World Champion All-Around Cowboy and heeling phenom Junior Nogueira. “My dad (who had a heart attack backing a horse into the corner at a rodeo, and died when Junior was just 5) talked about the Camarillos being the best, and how they changed team roping forever. Everybody knows it, and we’ve all learned something from what they started.
“Leo was the first guy to catch two feet every time, no matter what. When I got to America from Brazil, I wanted to meet him. Jake introduced me to Leo at Salinas (where Jake headed for Junior on Jerold’s horse), and I was in awe. After that, Leo would call and check on me every once in awhile, and we’d talk about team roping. The Lion was an amazing cowboy and competitor. No one will ever love roping more than Leo Camarillo.”