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Tucson rodeo clown is no fool

Jeff Franks has been tossed around by bulls since he was 13. He has felt unappreciated, but it's a job he's made for.

March 04, 2007|Michael Martinez | Chicago Tribune

TUCSON — Jeff Franks is a clown, a rodeo clown. He prefers to be called a bullfighter but will accept either title. He's that good-natured.

He has managed to evade many bulls. Assassin, Snake Eyes and Snowflake, Franks dodged all of them and, more important, kept the cowboys from being gored.

Then came Smash Mouth.

He might as well have been named Smash Chute, because that's what happened after the 1,800-pound bull sent Franks flying into the broadsides of Tucson rodeo chutes at a recent event.

Pop went the plastic vest underneath Franks' shirt when horns and fighter met. Even the announcer took note of the collision, which drew applause from the crowd that filled less than half of the 11,000-seat arena.

For a good minute, Franks struggled on his feet.

"It hit me right in the gut," Franks said. "There's a difference between being hurt and being injured," he added, declaring himself merely hurt.

Rodeo glory goes to the contestants, but the rodeo clown is often unappreciated, Franks said.

"He earned his money today. Jeff was tough," said Bennie Beutler, 55, of Elk City, Okla., whose family has been producing the annual rodeo in Tucson for 55 years. His family also has dabbled in movies, having assisted in the rodeo scenes in the Tucson arena for "Bus Stop" with Marilyn Monroe.

"Did you hear that pop?" Beutler said, noting that Franks took the hit for the bull rider who otherwise would have wound up in the hospital.

By disposition, a rodeo clown is a daredevil. Occasionally, clowns are cocky, although Franks seems humble, with an accent that he says originates from "backwoods Texas."

His job is essentially to be a decoy and human shield protecting bull riders after they're thrown by the animal. His costume is a pair of tattered bluejeans over red undergarments, with face paint evoking the shapes of old cow bones.

Franks was born and raised in Haslet, Texas, population about 1,400. His dad was a rodeo cowboy, his mom a homemaker.

Franks started working rodeos at 13 by getting into the barrel that's tossed around by the bull. He endures as a rodeo entertainer at 28, though he would like to become an actor, preferably in Westerns.

In his years fighting bulls, he has dislocated his shoulder, been knocked out, received nine stitches in the chin after a horn's gore -- "Nothing major," he said -- and broken three ribs, a scapula and his nose.

Distracting bulls is "the only thing I know how to do," Franks said.

But he's not as nuts, he said, as the rodeo's motorcycle jumpers, including one who was treated by paramedics at the recent event.

"They think I'm crazy?" Franks said, pointing to the wincing motorcyclist who held an injured leg. "I don't race motorcycles or jump them. You see, I know better."

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