LOVINGTON, N.M. – In the summer of 2019, Zack Cook was content in his job as a laborer at the Cody Nite Rodeo in his Wyoming hometown.
He’d work during the day and through the evening’s rodeo, then he’d hang out with others around the complex. Little did he know that those conversations would lead to a career change. In one fell swoop, Cook went from sorting cattle to entertaining thousands of people. He’s stayed with it.
Cook will be the clown and barrelman for the Lea County Fair and Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9-Saturday, Aug. 12, at Jake McClure Arena; that also includes Lea County Xtreme Bulls, which is Tuesday, Aug. 8.
“Zack is fairly new to this, but I’ve seen his work and think he’s got the talent to do it for a rodeo like ours,” said Kris Allen, chairman of the Lea County Fair Board. “The barrelman is important. To give him the opportunity to be in a rodeo like this is great for him and for us.”
Being part of one of the biggest events in ProRodeo is a giant leap from where Cook took his first steps as a rodeo clown. One day while working at Cody’s Stampede Park, he was approached by producer Maury Tate, who had heard about Cook’s naturally entertaining personality from his daughter, Hadley Tate.
“He said, ‘I need a favor,’ ” Cook recalled. “ ‘My daughter says your funny, and I need a rodeo clown. I don’t know anybody. I need you to put some makeup on and some big pants, and I’ll give you $100.’
“I was motivated by that $100 bill. I was so nervous, staring at 1,500 people not sure what I was going to say. I proceeded to walk into the arena, and all I could think of was trip and fall as hard as I can. I ran out there and tangled my feet up and hit the ground. I got up and said, ‘That’s how you know it was a Monday.’ ”
Tate gave Cook more opportunities to clown, and a new career was born. In the four years since, he has continued to work at his craft and build a name for himself. He found support from a well-recognized rodeo clown in Matt Tarr, who worked the Lea County Fair and Rodeo a year ago.
“Matt watched me and said, ‘You’ve got a natural way of talking to people,’ ” Cook said. “He asked if I wanted some pointers, and I was. That’s when we became friends. He told me, ‘One day somebody’s gong to come into your life that wants to be a clown, and you have to pick one person to help out. I choose you.’
“He told me how to be respectful in the rodeo world. I came into this not having any background. I was just a ranch cowboy, and I didn’t know anything about rodeo. He gave me his time of day, and it meant a lot to me.”
Cook developed his sense of humor while battling issues in his life. Sometimes being self-deprecating can open doors, and it did. He managed his struggles with comedy, and it opened the door for relationships with others.
“Early on, I learned to deal with my depression and sadness by trying to make a joke out of everything,” he said. “It’s a way of me releasing hurt, and I make jokes about it and laugh about it. My dad had had stage 4 cancer, and I’m surprised he made it out of it, but it was rough.
“I went to three high schools before I graduated. One thing learned about going to anew school was being outgoing. I came out of my shell my last year. I was friends with everybody. It’s because I was making jokes and having fun, and nothing could ever hurt me. It’s how I learned to deal with things, and that’s just stuck with me.”
It’s the perfect fit. He’s added some acts to his repertoire and is quickly rising up the charts as an entertainer and comedian in rodeo. He’ll return to Cody to work the Nite Rodeo from time to time to keep his talents sharpened, but he’s expanding his wings a bit as he works more rodeos.
“I get to travel the world with my wife and my 6-year-old daughter,” Cook said. “That helps me go down the road, keeps me stronger, keeps me sane.
“I’m still nervous every time I get ready to go in the arena. I always have anxiety, am stressed, am nervous. I’m anticipating what’s going to happen. If I didn’t feel that, I’d probably have to give this all up. As soon as I get out there and say that opening joke, then all that goes away.”
For five nights in southeastern New Mexico, Cook will step in front of big crowds eager for entertainment. He’ll work inside a large arena with people looking at him from all angles. He’ll use his best material and throw in some off-the-cuff commentary that will brighten everyone’s day. He will be on one of the biggest stages in ProRodeo.
It’s his time to shine.
“I’m just so happy to be there,” Cook said. “Those people pay good money for a ticket, so it’s an honor to go to Lovington, New Mexico, and work such a big rodeo. I’m blown away; I’m on Cloud 9 about it.”