It’s been proven in The American’s five-year history that it’s not easy to come out of retirement and compete at the highest level on the biggest stage. The only guy I can think of offhand who didn’t have heck doing that was Ote Berry in the bulldogging. So it was pretty cool to see Tee Woolman and Leo Camarillo show that same heart of a champion, and do themselves and our event proud as this year’s team roping legend exemptions.
I was kind of shocked when Leo called and asked for advice about what he should ride right after he got the call about The American. The master was calling me for advice—wow. Leo’s 72 now. So my advice to him was to ride a horse that was really wanting to hit the corner and stop—and tie on. Pride would not let The Lion do that.
Growing up in New Mexico, I never got to see any of the big-name ropers when I was a kid. Nothing was televised back then, and the internet didn’t exist. But I read about the Camarillos, and even as a kid I knew they were a big deal. The Camarillos were the Michael Jordans of roping and rodeo. They were the icons in this industry.
I go way back with Tee and Leo. I was roping with Allen Bach in 1983, then started roping with Clay (O’Brien Cooper). Then Tee and Leo split, so Tee and Clay started roping together, and Leo and I started roping in the middle of 1983. We finished out that year, and roped all of 1984 also. I was just a kid—24 when I started roping with Leo.
I gave up my first chance at a gold buckle to rope with Leo at the Finals in 1983 (Leo had $1,427 more won than Jake in the regular season, and he with the highest earnings won the world back then; one guy or two). There were three teams in contention for the championship that year—Clay and Tee, me and Leo, and Dee Pickett and Mike Beers. There’d been years when Leo had done the same—like 1980, when Leo gave up his chance to win the world to rope with Tee—and Leo convinced me to do that for financial reasons in 1983.
Leo thought that he and I had the best chance at winning good money at the Finals that year, and he was right. We had a really good Finals, and he kept his word on sharing the wealth. He let me use the Dodge Truck he got for winning the world most of that next year, and he gave me the sponsor bonuses he won with the world title, too.
Back to Tee and Leo at The American this year, the odds were obviously stacked against them. That long round was a knife fight, but they held their own. I was pulling for them. I’ll always appreciate what Leo did for me. I was just like every other snot-nosed kid who shows up with high hopes and big expectations. But in hindsight, I was just going through the motions before going through Leo’s boot camp.
He had a trophy room/apartment at his place in California, and I moved in. It had all the history and pictures and world championship saddles in it. It was like a little museum that was connected to the house.
Leo taught me that you have to train to be a champion. We’d get up every morning, go feed, he’d go jog, we’d clean pens, have breakfast, saddle up and get to work. And of course I was a fanatic about roping the dummy, so he had to hear that “crack, crack, crack” half the night out his bedroom window.
Leo intimidated people, and after reading a couple books he suggested to me—“The Greatest: Muhammad Ali” and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”—I could see a lot of Ali in Leo. He’s fierce. That’s why they call him The Lion.
Leo taught me how to make a business out of my passion, and I tried to pay it forward and do that for Junior (Nogueira) when he got here from Brazil. Leo taught me how to leave as little as possible to chance. I called Leo after The American, and told him how proud I am of him. Because I am.