Professional rodeo clown JJ Harrison ’98 is one courageous guy. When not defusing Brahma bulls in the arena, he’s disarming preteen bullies in the classroom.
It’s not the role he envisioned for himself while earning his degree in elementary education at Washington State University, but one he seems uniquely born to play.
“I love kids and I’ve always been a class clown, even at WSU where I highly considered being Butch,” says Harrison. “My friends were absolutely convinced I was Butch, and I just let them think that.”
After graduation, Harrison taught middle school in Walla Walla before trying some rodeo clowning on the side in 2005. “It was fun and took me back to my roots,” he says. “Pretty soon I had rodeos calling and it just exploded—my career progressed really fast.”
He made the transition to full-time clowning in 2008 and has since performed at rodeos in Florida, Hawaii, and everywhere in between. As one of the nation’s top rodeo clowns, Harrison’s act is booked nearly year-round. Not only does he entertain the audience during lulls in the program, he also protects injured cowboys during bull riding and other events. It’s his job to distract the bull while the fallen contestant limps out of the arena.
“I’ve definitely been hurt a lot,” Harrison says. “I’ve cracked my skull, broke my back twice, had a hip surgery, and three knee surgeries. I also had stem cells put in my back. To be honest, the worst is wear-and-tear just running on uneven dirt in the arena—you roll your ankles 30 times a night, despite wearing cleats.”
His athletic high-energy antics have made him a five-time nominee for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Clown of the Year award, which is presented at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
In 2012, Harrison was selected to perform at the National Finals as the barrelman—a clown who hides inside a barrel to divert charging bulls. “The Nationals are like our Super Bowl,” he says. “It’s a huge feather in any cowboy’s hat, and a big highlight of my career.”
Harrison, who says he doesn’t drink but loves to party, also hosts the MGM Grand Gold Buckle Zone show during National Finals, where he often brings cowboy superstars on stage to meet and interact with the audience.
It all adds up to living a boyhood dream. “Being a rodeo clown is a high—you’ve got 9,000 people screaming and laughing with you, but not everyone there is rodeo savvy,” he says. “As an entertainer, I try to connect them to our sport. Put together that puzzle piece for the fan. I enjoy that.”
Harrison says his act is mostly impromptu, off the cuff, and an extension of his goofy personality. It includes things like riding horses, throwing footballs to the crowd, and showing off impressive dance moves while wearing giant inflatable air suits.
“A lot of what I do was learned in classes at WSU on how to manage a classroom,” he says. “Good teachers like Tariq Akmal in the College of Education instilled that ability to adapt to my environment. I attribute a lot of my success to WSU.”
Harrison carries that positive energy into every community he visits. From rodeo skits honoring police officers and first responders to promotion of 811 farm and ranch safety, he uses his time on stage not just for a laugh but to uplift and inspire.
That includes taking his Don’t be a Bull-y! Be a Champion! campaign to school assemblies around the country. The lighthearted but serious program teaches the difference between simple teasing and bullying.
“With teasing, there’s a balance of power,” he says. “When it comes to bullying, there’s no balance; only one person holds the power. We need to teach kids how to report it and buck those bullies out of their lives.”