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Clownin’ around is their business

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Rob Smets is not a funny guy.

Never mind that he has paint all over his face and enormous shorts with bandanas hanging off the sides. Ignore the giggles from children as he signs autographs.

Even his wife, Carla, says emphatically, he's not funny.

This guy is all business. His business just happens to be dressing up as a clown.

His job, however, is to protect the cowboys who ride bulls. Next to the bull riders themselves, Smets and his co-clowns have a rodeo's most dangerous job.

They dash in front of the snorting, ornery animals as the bulls put their heads down looking to extract a bit of revenge on the cowboys they've just thrown off their backs. The clowns lure them away from the cowboys at their own peril.

They do it over and over in rodeo after rodeo all year long — more than 200 days a year.

This week Smets is joined by Lloyd Ketchum and Marty Martak as they all watch out for the cowboys in Utah's Days of '47 Rodeo. They've already had some close calls. Smets injured his forearm Thursday night as a bull's hoof came at his face.

"I'm OK," he said rubbing his swollen arm. "God threw my hand up."

A smarting wrist is nothing compared with some of the injuries he's suffered in the past. He broke his neck in Monroe, La. , in 1992 and another vertebra in his upper neck in 1996 in Memphis, Tenn. But the worst was in 1985 when a bull ran his horn four inches into his back near his spine.

And, so the obvious question becomes, why would anyone want this job?

"I'm too lazy to work," Smets said. "My wife hates that answer. I do it because I love it. I started in high school."

He sat on the arena fence and offered unsolicited advice to those rodeo clowns.

"They said, 'If you think it's so easy, come and do it,' " he said. And he's been in the arena chasing, baiting and running from bulls ever since.

Some nights go smoothly and uneventfully, like Wednesday night. And then there was Thursday night, when only one cowboy could stay on until the eight-second buzzer.

One cowboy got stepped on, one split his head and there were several close calls as the bull kicked and spun. No one was seriously injured, and that's what they call "a good day at the office."

"Some nights it looks awful easy and people think 'Why do they pay these guys so much?' " Smets said. "Then there are nights like this (Thursday), where it's nowhere near enough money."

Lloyd Ketchum, 38, used to be a bull rider. He got into the ring to help out other riders who were getting hurt because some rodeos didn't have skilled clowns.

"It turned into a full-time job," he said. "How many people can say they really like their jobs."

How many people get chased around the office by a 2,000-pound animal that's looking to smash them into the ground?

Ketchum hasn't had many serious injuries, and he's never missed work because he was hurt. The worst was having to undergo knee surgery after a bull rammed his head into his legs as he jumped on a fence.

"It's a lot more dangerous just traveling up and down the highways," he said. Both men said if a bull rider knows what he's doing, it makes their jobs a lot easier.

"There's a lot of technique involved," Ketchum said. "Understanding where the wreck is going to be and preventing it, that's our job . . . It's a game of reactions. If you stop and think, people get hurt. You have to be ready to lay your life on the line."

They do it because it's exhilarating and purposeful and boredom is the least of their worries on the job.

"The adrenalin rush, the physical challenge is so awesome," Smets said. "The travel, that's the hardest part."

Smets' wife is planning to take a leave of absence from her job as a schoolteacher to travel with her husband this year. Their 13-year-old daughter will go with them, and Mom plans to home-school her.

According Gizmo McCracken (the funny clown Smets pushes around in a barrel at the end of each night's show) having your family with you on the road makes the travel bearable.

"It helps if you've got your family with you, or you'll wind up single . . . When other kids were reading about it, my kids were standing in it," he said.

"It's a job. If you're cut out for it, you wouldn't have it any other way."

E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com