One year ago today, I had the last of my treasured lifelong talks with Leo Camarillo, right before COVID sent the roping revolutionary to Heaven. Seeing The Lion on the big screen above that Thomas & Mack Center Arena during Sunday’s Memorial Night opening took me back to a very special scene at September’s ProRodeo Tour Finale, which this year was held at Leo’s all-time favorite California Rodeo Salinas. Things happened that Sunday that only three people on this planet have known about—until now.
Our last visit was vintage Leo. He’d been watching every move the 2020 NFR team ropers made, and had it all broken down from that Arizona hospital bed. Leo always had an opinion, and sugar-coating was not his style. I loved and respected that about him.
“I thought the team roping was the best event on opening night,” Leo said of the COVID-caused 2020 NFR in Texas. “They utilized more of that bigger arena (at AT&T Stadium in Arlington). The score was adjusted accordingly, and the fresher-type steers showed that these guys are the best of the best. The cattle are big and they run, so if these guys keep trying to reach at them, they’re going to struggle.
“But now a few nights in, I just want to grab some of these guys by the shoulders and say, ‘You’re better than this. You don’t miss one at home. Just do it.’ We lost 10 teams in the average before the fifth go-round. Really? The five teams that are left just need to buckle up. They can win big money without letting their hair down now.”
Since The Lion left us last December 30, his brother and fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer, Jerold, and sister, Christie, had been trying to come up with just the right way to honor their big brother. Salinas was Leo’s slam-dunk favorite rodeo. So on short-round Sunday at the Tour Finale the last week of the 2021 regular rodeo season—when Christie surprised both Jerold and I by pulling her portion of Leo’s ashes out of her pocket—we all knew it was perfect.
Leo’s siblings spread big brother’s ashes in that Salinas heel box in silence. Then came the stories. We laughed. We cried. A couple hours later, the short-round team ropers gathered round that same set of boxes—the ones where by tradition the header and heeler come from that same left side of the steer—and bowed their heads in a moment of silence for The Lion right before they roped. They had no idea what had happened there that morning in that corner where Leo’s cowboy hat had to be picked up after every run all those years. They do now.
Faces in that heads-bowed cowboy crowd included two of the teams contending for this year’s world team roping title—Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira, and Clay Smith and Jade Corkill. I just know that made Leo smile with pride from his throne high overhead. Oh, how I want to pick up the phone right now and ask Leo what he thinks about this year’s world championship race.
I know what he’d say about only five teams catching their first five steers, and now just four teams who have six steers down. Leo was bullish on flawless fundamentals and felt unforced errors were for fools. But there was no bigger fan of roping or rodeo than Leo, and he was truly impressed by the depth of young team roping talent out there today.
When I got into mischief as a kid, my mom would say, “Santa’s watching.” When my sons were little, I’d tell them, “God’s watching.” Hey, you Top-15 types of today, “Leo’s watching.” He’s proud of you—occasional struggles that come with trying to be 3 and all—and was truly touched by what you did to help honor him at Salinas. Thank you all from The Lion.