RENO - Replace a legend with a legend.
That's what the Reno Rodeo did when it hired Keith Isley as its new barrelman/clown to replace Flint Rasmussen, who signed an exclusive contract with the Pro Bull Riders Association.
Isley knows he has a hard act to follow. Rasmussen was a big hit with local rodeo fans since he came to Reno in 2000. Isley is friends with Rasmussen, and the two have even done some roping together.
"Flint is very talented, and I've enjoyed working with him," Isley said last week after his first-ever performance at the Reno Rodeo. "Flint's strongest point is walking and talking. He's very quick-witted.
"My strong point is my acts; my animals. I feel I still hold my own with the quick-witted stuff."
Isley has entertained fans thus far with his trick roping and trick horses (for riding). He has a mini-horse that he's used in his act this week, and he's done a couple of different acts.
"There are 10 performances, and for repeat fans that come more than once, I try to do something different as much as possible," said the 48-year-old Isley. "If you do something different over a long period of time, when you come back the next year, you are limited in what you can do."
Both Rasmussen and Isley are funny, and they have demonstrated they have their own ways of entertaining rodeo fans, according to Wayne Brooks, the announcer inside the ring every night in Reno.
"He's (Isley) just as good in a different way," Brooks said. "He's very talented. It's a matter of finding his game at this rodeo.
"I've worked with Keith before, but it's been about a year. In my opinion, he's definitely one of the top clowns in the business."
And, if you look at Isley's resume, you would have to agree.
In 1999 and 2000 he won the PRCA Specialty Act of the Year Award, was a top-5 finalist for Coors Man in the Can Award from 1998 to 2000 and was finalist for Clown of the Year from 1997 to 2000.
Isley takes great pride in that 1999 award.
"It was the first time a rodeo clown had ever won it," he said. "There were a lot of people upset about that. The next year they changed things to Comedy Act of the Year as well as Specialty Act of the Year, and I won both the following year.
"Nothing else is going to happen that means more to me than that award right now."
Not bad for a guy who was reluctant to tell jokes and perform clown acts when he first started in the business more than 30 years ago. Isley admitted that large crowds intimidated him at first.
"It was tough to be in front of people I didn't know and try to be funny," Isley said. "I was terrified of that. You can hide yourself and fears behind that (clown) makeup."
Isley has taken some good-natured ribbing from Hall of Fame announcer Bob Tallman about being from North Carolina, which is known more for college basketball and NASCAR than anything else.
"It's unbelievable the amount of rodeos back east, it's just on a smaller scale," he said. "There is some talent back there. You can't afford to make it a full-time business."
Isley's first trip to Reno got off to a rough start.
One of his animals got sick along the way, and Isley wasn't sure if he was going to make it or not. Isley said that the animal finally pulled through.
"The thing I love most (about the business) are the animals," Isley said. "Unfortunately, they don't last forever."
Isley's first night in the ring got a little scary. He got bumped hard in his Coors Can once, and he avoided a hard-charging bull another time.
"That was nothing," Isley said, a smile on his face. "That was more like a love tap. The barrel has got some dents in it."
The rest of the time has been pretty easy for Isley. He hasn't had any close encounters with the bulls, and that's a good thing.
This past April, the 48-year-old Isley found out the hard way that he couldn't do the same things he used to do when he first started bullfighting.
"I thought I could get around this particular bull," Isley said. "He treated me like a piece of farm equipment. He had me face down in the dirt."
Isley was a cowboy himself during his teen-aged years, but lasted only two years before he turned to bullfighting.
"I was riding bulls and bareback," Isley said. "You might win $20 or $25 if you had a good ride. I liked the competition. I still compete in team roping some."
He turned to bullfighting, and gradually learned the ropes, often learning from his mistakes.
It's not an easy life - pulling a trailer never is. In 2002 alone, Isley went to 45 different rodeos and traveled approximately 30,000 miles. That's tough on an individual, let alone if he is married like Isley is.
"One of the hardest things is being gone from her for so long," Isley said. "My wife used to trick ride with me (at the rodeos). She quit in 1991. I took her part out and continued on with it."
Isley has no idea how much longer he will continue in the business.
"I thought I'd be retiring about now," he said. "It seems like it continues to get bigger and bigger. People are always telling me how good their rodeos are and how much fun I would have."
Fun is key to Isley. He wants to have fun when he goes to work. If it becomes a drudgery, he'll get out of the business.
"If it's not fun, I don't want to participate," Isley said. "I may go to the same rodeo two, three or four years, I see guys going to the same rodeo for years and years. I just think it does everybody good if you are absent (for a bit) and then come back."
Hopefully Isley will give the Reno Rodeo a chance to warm to him and vice versa.
Contact Darrell Moody at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling (775) 881-1281
The Isley File
Age - 48
Born - Reidsville, North Carolina
Experience - 32 years
Awards - Specialty Act of the Year Award in 1999 and 2000