More than likely, college graduates, let alone ones with business degrees, never envision themselves becoming a professional clown. Justin Rumford is no different, but his acts go far beyond balloon animals and juggling balls.
Rodeo has been as much a part of his life as cowboy hats and blue jeans are to the sport. Rumford's grandfather started a rodeo company 65 years ago. His family has raised rodeo stock for more than 60 years, but the 33-year-old from Ponca City, Okla., never believed rodeo clown and barrelman performances would etch his largest imprint on the sport he admitted "is the only thing I've ever known."
"I grew up in the business," Rumford said in a phone interview. "Competing, taking care of animals and clowning now, which has been a great transition, is something I really enjoy. I've got to see it from all sides, and it's been quite a ride."
Rodeo fans will get the chance to see Rumford, arguably the best clown in the business, during the Lynden PRCA Rodeo at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 23-24, at the Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center in Lynden.
Rumford started in rodeo as a competitor, both wrestling steer and riding saddle broncs with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association from 1998-2008. One summer night in 2010, though, his rodeo career changed direction.
"I've always been the jokester, and even coming behind the chutes I'd always be cracking jokes and acting like Chris Farley," Rumford explained. "Everyone kept telling me I need to work as a rodeo entertainer and start doing acts."
He first performed during an amateur bull riding event in Kansas, and the response generated was well received yet unexpected to him.
"I wasn't planning on doing it full time," Rumford said. "I figured I had nothing to lose. I thought I'd just go out there and knock their socks off. It worked, and it was like, 'What in the world? This is pretty fun.'"
Entertaining a crowd, as Rumford realized from the first time he performed, pays pretty well, too, especially for a rodeo clown of his caliber.
While top cowboys can pull in six-figure incomes, financial gain is dependent on success. And any cowboy in the PRCA can vouch for the physical toll an athlete endures during a season.
Rumford doesn't rely on unsteady pay. Clowning gives him a set stipend per show.
"I got $1,000 for one night worked," said Rumford of his first rodeo. "I worked as a branch manager for $800 a week. I thought $1,000 was a little better."
Rumford's success as a rodeo clown was widely recognized at last year's PRCA season-ending banquet. Not only was he selected as a clown/barrelman alternate for National Finals Rodeo - rodeo's version of the Super Bowl - he was voted 2012 PRCA Clown of the Year by a contingent of 5,000 association members.
That notoriety, combined with his humorous acts, has helped Rumford make an annual salary between $100,000 and $150,000 as one of the most can't-miss clowns in the PRCA.
"To be voted (Clown of the Year) in three years has never happened before," Rumford said. "It felt like quite an accomplishment. I couldn't believe it."
Standing in the Las Vegas banquet hall and receiving the award was the first time he truly realized his skill, he said.
That innate ability he uses to make people laugh is displayed with comical crowd interaction filled with ever-changing material. Rumford doesn't use a go-to joke or act.
"I just want people to enjoy it," he said. "I don't do a lot of jokes as much as I do crowd interaction. I don't do anything controversial. Everything I do is fun. I just talk about everyday stuff and when they leave I want them to say, 'That guy had a great time,' and seeing me having fun, man, they want to, too."
Rumford travels 10 months out of 12 and imagines he'll perform another six years. He and his wife, Ashley Rumford, who is a University of Oklahoma graduate and handles the business side of Justin's rodeo clown career, are soon expecting triplets. By the time their soon-to-be trio starts school, Justin plans to return home where he'll go back to working as a rancher.
His trip to Lynden is his first professional rodeo in Washington, but he said he's excited to see the countryside and interact with Whatcom County rodeo fans.
Not only will one of the top rodeo entertainers be at the Lynden PRCA Rodeo, some of the highest profile athletes in the sport are scheduled to compete as well. Those include world-renowned cowboy and 17-time world-title winner Trevor Brazile, current No. 1-ranked bull rider J.W. Harris and No. 1-ranked steer wrestler Casey Knowles.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
LYNDEN PRCA RODEO
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 23-24
Where: Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center in Lynden
Tickets: $17 for general admission; Children three and under are free if sitting on an adult's lap; $75 for VIP ticket, which includes premier seating near bucking chutes, a VIP parking pass, a fully catered meal, two drink tickets and a full no-host bar. Tickets can be purchased by calling 877-699-FAIR, visiting www.nwwafair.com or at the ticket booth day of.
Ticket prices corrected
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.