It’s hard to tell which takes more courage: taunting a bull in a rodeo arena with Fun Noodles, or wearing a pink sumo outfit — complete with a purple bathing suit.
For rodeo barrelman and entertainer JJ Harrison, both are all in a day’s work, and his hard work over the last six years has paid off. He was voted by his peers to work the National Finals Rodeo, which starts today and runs through Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.
“It’s the world championship for a rodeo clown,” Harrison said. “You don’t set it as a goal. It is very humbling. It’s a great honor, not just for me, but for the Pacific Northwest.”
Harrison, 37, has entertained rodeo crowds for years, including the Horse Heaven Round-Up in Kennewick and the Sisters Rodeo in Oregon, where he got his first gig.
His interaction with the fans, energy and creativity prompted announcers, bullfighters and fellow barrelmen to cast their votes for the Walla Walla funnyman.
“I believe he is one of the funniest guys out there,” longtime Kennewick bullfighter Rowdy Barry said. “I voted for him to go to the NFR, and obviously others thought he was worthy as well. He is the Northwest’s best-kept secret. The word is starting to get out.”
Harrison was at a rodeo in Billings, Mont., in late October when he got the call from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association to work the NFR.“I was in a production meeting, and twice I let the call go to voicemail,” Harrison said. “When they called the third time, I knew I should take the call.”
After giving his wife, Melissa, and 4-year-old son Huck the news, one of his first calls was to Barry.
“I’ve seen him mature, and I’ve tried to help him along,” Barry said. “He is so full of energy and has a quick wit. Nothing is scripted. His strength is his walking and talking. He breathes life into the crowd, and they interact with him.”
With the addition of sponsors Ranch & Home, 811 and Tim’s Cascade Snacks, Harrison has been able to take jobs farther away from home and increase his face time on the PRCA circuit.
Rodeo committees pay per performance, but Harrison must get himself there, which is where his sponsors have been a big help.
“It’s no surprise the year they come on board, I’m going to the NFR,” Harrison said. “Ranch & Home has been extremely supportive. With the price of diesel, that’s how you get down the road.”
Harrison grew up in Okanogan, where he played football, basketball, baseball and tennis for the Bulldogs.
“I loved to play football, but I was blessed with a stick frame,” said Harrison, who regularly tosses a football around with the fans during rodeos.
“I’m very competitive. I got into rodeo in college and really thought I could be a bull rider. Then I realized I was a big sissy. I’d rather stand in front of them than be on one.”
He always has his barrel to dive into when the bulls get a little too friendly.
“I’m better-looking than Rowdy — I have to protect my grill,” Harrison said with a laugh. “He can just grow a bigger mustache to hide the scars.”
Harrison earned a teaching degree from Washington State University and a master’s degree from Grand Canyon University. He taught science and social studies at Pioneer and Garrison middle schools in Walla Walla before hitting the rodeo circuit full time in 2008.
“With teaching, you have to educate them and entertain them,” Harrison said of his former students. “There is no barrel to hide in. I taught for eight years. Teaching helped get me to the NFR. It’s a fun environment around kids, and they know what’s cool. When I first started, there was a lot of middle school humor.”
Melissa Harrison, director of marketing for Walla Walla Community College, said she supported her husband’s career move.
“It has worked out wonderfully,” she said. “It has given our family the opportunity to travel and experience things. It has been so much fun for us as a family.”
With the career change came the lack of security of a regular paycheck, but it wasn’t long before JJ Harrison was cashing in on some pretty big paydays.
“It was scary as hell going from having a job with a monthly salary and insurance to running around in the dirt with bulls,” Harrison said. “I’m good with money, and I keep myself in a good position. I told myself if I could earn enough in the summer to equal my teaching salary, that I would quit teaching. I’ve more than quadrupled my teaching salary, but that comes back to work ethic. The better I am, the more money I make.”
Harrison knows he can’t fling Fun Noodles at bulls forever. He has a backup plan for when he no longer can ski behind a horse around the rodeo arena and his pink sumo suit no longer holds air.
“I don’t want to be an old rodeo clown,” Harrison said. “I’m a physical clown, and it takes its toll. It’s something that I love to do, but I do keep my teaching certificate current.”
The way his rodeo career has taken off, Harrison won’t be back in a classroom for quite some time.