Episode 018 - Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer,
Tom Feller

A man who wears many hats with roots as deep as the sea in rodeo and the western industry, Tom Feller is a rodeo clown turned Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund Board Member, a vintage western rodeo artist, has been inducted into several halls of fame including the 2023 class of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and currently serves as the Director of Event Marketing at Justin brands. Listen as he shares what rodeo was like before the Justin Justin Sportsmedicine® Team and the JCCF.

Listen Here:

Podcast Transcript

Taylor McAdams: You're listening to the Kick Your Boots Up Podcast where we swap stories of the West. Whether you're just waking up or getting in for the day, come on in and kick your boots up. Hello, and welcome back to the Kick Your Boots Up podcast. I'm your host, Taylor McAdams and joining today at the Justin headquarters is none other than Tom Feller. He is actually the Director of Event Marketing here at Justin Brands. And I'm one of the fortunate ones to get to work with him on our team. But the most prominent thing I have to talk about just really quick, Tom is to just showcase the importance and the honor that it is that you got recently inducted to into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado. What an honor. Congratulations, and thank you for being on today.

Tom Feller: Thank you very much. It is quite an honor. It's kind of overwhelming. I'm not sure that it's totally sunk in just yet. But you know, it's not about Tom Feller, the person it's about all the things that I've experienced in rodeo, through Justin, and to Rodeo as a career.

Taylor McAdams: Oh, without a doubt. And speaking of that a little bit, you tell us a little bit about your rodeo background and how you got started in the industry.

Tom Feller: Well, actually, we were raised in the in the city. No one in our family has ever had any connection with agriculture other than perhaps a garden or my mother talking about milking the cows when she was little. But my brother and I just seem to gravitate towards rodeo. And oddly enough, our maternal grandfather was quite an artist, and they did a lot of wood burning and carvings and stuff and when Jim Bob and I were just young kids in elementary school, our grandpa yeah, woodcarving that Jim Bob still has but it depicted a rodeo scene and clowns and bulls and our knowledge man had never even been to a rodeo so it was kind of like a premonition of the future for both of us.

Taylor McAdams: And what an incredible future it became because you went on to be a funny barrel man and talk to us about your time there. What was that like entertaining the crowd and being the funny man?

Tom Feller: Well, that's a you know, a funny barrelman is might be a stretch, although I would have the good fortune of surrounding myself with a lot of good partners as rodeo clowns. First being Jim Bob, of course. And then with Rick Chapman and Leon Coffee and Grinder bullfights back in the 80s. And so we clowned in an era that was really before the microphone before rodeo clowns are became what they are today. And that's kind of stand-up comedians. You know, we had to rely a lot on pantomime their true clown hearts that say that Tim Conway or someone like that would practice.

Taylor McAdams: Oh, yeah. And I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for those days. And, you know, I was just talking off camera with Jacki Montgomery, who's on your team here at Justin and she mentioned where I actually told her that she was one of the OG’s. So I think I'm gonna put you in that category too, Tom, you're one of the OG’s, the originals, the original gangsters at that matter. What does it feel to? What does it mean to you and how does it feel to be one of the originals that kind of helped? Not only you got to learn from the people before you but then also kind of help set the stage for the rodeo clowns that are today as you mentioned.

Tom Feller: Well, I you know, I fit in there somewhere. But But certainly, how interest must classify myself as an OG. I mean, my goodness, Jimmy Schumacher, and Tom Lucia and Quail Dodds all those guys were, were legends before I ever even got my card back in 19 said before, so, you know, I had someone that I wanted to emulate. Lucia was a great hero of mine and as a barrel man, and a funny man and, and just his actions and movements in the arena. So we emulated him a lot. Tim Conway, for those that are old enough to remember, was a great star on television and just did such great things with Panamime and that's kind of what I tried to pattern my style after was independent mine. Playing off what the announcer would say, giving him material, if he needed it to come to me, was a comment or two. And if not, if it wasn't needed by the announcer or the flow of the rodeo, then it was just for those few in the audience that were picking it up.

Taylor McAdams: Oh, yeah. And I like I said before, I would have loved to see and be there as a as a member in the crowd. I'm sure there's several out there that remember you and you were a rodeo clown. So thank you for paving the way for the industry today and you're so humble. You are one of the originals in my eyes. I grew up having this Have a very similar rodeo role models as well. So thank you for everything you've done for the future of the sport and continue to do to live on the legacy. But one of those things that you do is the Justin sports medicine team and program you help oversee the many miles that they traveled down the road. And so I've just got to ask before we get into the meat of it all, what was life like and rodeo like before the Justin Sportsmedicine Team® (JST) and in talk to us about some of the past competitors that could have probably gone on and done better and have longer careers had they have been able to take care of their body easier?

Tom Feller: Well, I do have the good fortune of having been around before a sports medicine as we know it today. And of course afterwards. So. And with regard to your second part of your question, you know, it's hard to sit back with the recent loss of of one of the true icons of rodeo one of the most dynamic personalities ever in rodeo with a passing Larry Mahan you know it makes me very curious to wonder what his career might have been had he had luxuries that these young cowboys have today. Uh, Justin Sportsmedicine Team®, or sports medicine in general, been the king of the Cowboys in the 60s. And even in the 70s. He had about a 10-year span there. But had he had access to sports medicine and all the technology that sports medicine brings to the athletes of today's rodeo world. There's no telling how long that career might have lasted.

Taylor McAdams: I couldn't agree more. And well said that's so well said there. And I can't help but think about the injuries that happen that are more of an emergency injury that happened in the rodeo arena where if there's if Justin sports medicine is not there, then they have to be rushed by ambulance. And sometimes they still do but talk to us about life before that before they were able to have that immediate help before the ambulance was able to take them or transport them. What was it harder, were cowboys tougher?

Tom Feller: Well, I'm not gonna say they were tougher, but they were tough. That's for sure. Today's athlete is equally as tough and perhaps better condition than some of our our predecessors. The program brings more than just the metal, touch and healing priced this, it means rings, training and conditioning tips and ideas. It tells a cowboy how to prepare, how to move from, you know, everybody thought stretching was was a mechanical thing that someone did for you. Now we're developing our sports medicine has developed, you know, dynamic stretching, and it's very active and it gets a heart rate up and it gets a body ready for that eight seconds, you know, to 10 to 15 Depending on your event of pure adrenaline rush and physical abuse, if you will.

Taylor McAdams: Oh, yeah. But the bodies of the cowboys and the athletes out there do take a beating. They have to prepare for war almost it feels like at times, but there's probably some people out there that aren't really familiar with the program. So to kind of let everyone out there No, that just didn't count or that Justin sports medicine team has trailers and Tom, how many trailers do they have that they're able to take to rodeos?

Tom Feller: Actually, we have three on the road currently. And before sports medicine was introduced to pro rodeo really in 19, at the 1980 National Finals Rodeo by Dr. J. Pat Evans, and an athletic trainer by the name of Don Andrews. The cowboys were pretty much on their own. They weren't the tough guys, they just they they they knew how to take care of themselves to do to the degree that they were exposed to information. But it wasn't like, you know, they knew how to tape properly, or prepare themselves properly or dynamic stretch and get their body ready for the competition. So that all changed in 1980 when a guy named Walt Garrison that was the runningback for the Dallas Cowboys. Went to the team doctor, Dr. J. Pat Evans of the Dallas Cowboys who was an orthopedic surgeon for not only the Cowboys but the Dallas Mavericks at the time. And being a cowboy himself, what persuaded Dr. Evans, that, you know, maybe us cowboys, us real cowboys and this guy had and sort of ailments, need some attention, need some help? We need the same services that you're providing me when I have my shoulder pads on.

Taylor McAdams: Love how you made that connection helmets versus so football players versus cowboys. And I can't help but think back to a few weeks ago actually when I was just in your office and you showed me any pictures of Jay Pat Evans you with him? What's it like having been part of the conception of the Justin sports medicine program, seeing it being friends with Jay Pat Evans and knowing the impact that he's made on the industry?

Tom Feller: Well, for me, everything in life, I've just been so fortunate right place at the right time. And my career really just started take off. At the same timeframe, as Justin sports medicine was introduced. 1981 was a really big year for me and one that kind of launched my career if you will. Before that, you know, I'd seen guys tape in their ankles, guys that are climbing with me tape their ankles over their socks, not a very preventative method of preparing yourself for what you're going to encounter out in the arena. So the knowledge that they brought the expertise, and Dr. Evans was a gruff guy, he understood cowboys, he himself was a cowboy. And it's a certain mentality that your average run of the mill physician doesn't understand that cowboy mentality, or his toughness in his ability to endure pain and his pure grit to go out there and do something when he's injured when the rest of the guys they're sitting on the bench.

Taylor McAdams: Well, yeah, the heart there is is intense, for sure. And same with cowboys, you know, trying to have to get up and go and protect themselves when they're in during some of the hardest hits that they've experienced with their bodies. But one thing I want to mention too, is kind of moving on to life after the sports medicine team. You talked a little bit, just yesterday, actually, I think about how Stetson Wright is now. He's a seven-time world champion. And he's so young, he has so much future ahead of him because he's been able to prolong his career and prolong his body. Talk to us about the importance of the Justin sports medicine program now and then they they not only help the injured, but they also prevent injuries, which is the biggest and I think most important part of it.

Tom Feller: Preventing Injuries it's a big part. But if you want to use Stetson or any of his family, or anybody in rodeo currently, as an example, you have to understand these guys are cowboys first, before they ever got their PRCA card before they ever got their first permit. They were riding horses properly working cattle, they were true cowboys and most are now the focus is more on athletics and the athletic side of it today, especially in the rodeo competition. But when those guys step out of their routine, they're on the reg. They're cowboys.

Taylor McAdams: Yeah, they are and they probably do use some of the same techniques in and out of the arena as well. And that's what I think is so encouraging about the future of rodeo but Justin sports medicine team has certainly made it that way. The future brighter anyway. And having just been able to spend a little bit of time at Fort Worth with you in the Justin sports medicine room, I learned so much how serious the volunteers take their jobs and how one mistake could change somebody's life forever made on in on the table there in the room. So talk to us about what the setup is like at several different rodeos and some of the things that they go go through to prepare and ensure that they have the best facilities the best opportunities for all the cowboys.

Tom Feller: You touched on one thing, Taylor that's really critical to the program. You have to understand that in 1981, the mobile Sports Medicine Unit or system that Don Andrews and Dr. Evans introduced was the back of the El Camino, a brand new 1981 El Camino with a camper shell on it and a bunch of tape and bags and maybe a set of crutches or two thrown in the back. That was mobile sports medicine, they went to 11 rodeos. In today's world, we're going to approximately honor 25 rodeos every year, something like 500 rodeo performances a year trading 8000 cowboys a year. And this is only possible because as we may have mentioned earlier, we have four traders or three traders that go around the country. But those trainers aren't healing the Cowboys it's the volunteers that do nationwide there's a network of some 800 medical professionals and I'm talking from heart surgeons to you know TCU trainers and as orthopedic people that are volunteer volunteering their time to go out there and work on these athletes and why? Because they know these people are special. They know how tough they are. They have an appreciation for how tough These athletes are they won't find them sit on the beach. So they go and my toe hurt. Not not.

Taylor McAdams: Yeah, and they their hearts are in it. They love the sport of rodeo themselves. They're rodeo fans as well as medical professionals. And that's what keeps the Justin sports medicine program in line is just ran by all those volunteers. So a special shout-out to all of the volunteers out there. If you are a volunteer watching this, I'd love to hear your story. Please comment, message us whatever you want to do. But kind of talking about another program and opportunity that works alongside the Justin Sportsmedicine Team®, but also stands alone as its own nonprofit is the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund one that's dear to my heart but even dear to yours. And I've just got to ask to kind of along the same lines with going along with the same theme of before Justin sports medicine, what was like what was life like before the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund?

Tom Feller: Well, of course, life was better, because the sports medicine haven't been introduced back in the early 80s. But there was still a void when a guy was heard, you know, when he's got a compound fracture of the leg that's going to take, you know, six to eight months to heal, or he's had to have rotator cuff surgery, and he's not going to be able to rope a calf or team rope. For another six months to a year. There's a void, these guys didn't have any way to make a living, you know, they're getting in financial trouble and stuff. So once again, you know, to the connection of John Justin Jr. and his love for the sport, and his love for the people in the sport, and his dedication to giving back to those people who bought his product. The idea was presented to the PRCA for a crisis flag. And as luck would have it, again, timing was just right, I happen to have stepped out of the arena and then to the world of professional rodeo with national headquarters. And that was one of my earliest assignments, was taking this idea that Justin has brought to us and developing it to develop a crisis fund to help these cowboys out. Now we don't pay their medical bills. But we do help with their cost of living. So when a guy's hurt, he's out for six months is the traumatic injury. He doesn't have to worry about the rent being paid the child support or the family going hungry, or any of those things. If it's qualified, the crisis fund steps down and pays their cost of living expenses. And there's no return, there's nothing asked in return. It's just something that through the benevolence of people that love rodeo and make donations to the crisis fun. These guys can now survive without losing, you know, their home or without running of risk of marital problems, because they're not enough money to pay the bills. You know, it goes a little deeper than just on the surface. And it's the most unique thing about the crisis fun and that thing, all us, all of us that are involved with it with most unique thing all of us cherish about the crisis fun is that 100% Of all the donations people make to the crisis fund go directly to help these rodeo athletes, male, female, professional, non professional, help recover and take care of their bills while they're recovering. 100% of all those donations go that way. And that's only possible because the Justin boot company, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association underwrite all the expenses of operating the fund.

Taylor McAdams: Wow, I am left speechless. I know that was something I knew. But even just hearing it again from your mouth. It kind of humbles a person and puts it into perspective that there are good guys out there and the cowboy way of life is going to continue to live on because cowboys can afford to still be cowboys. And that's something that's so admirable. And one thing that I think a lot of people need to know too is the board members that give their time they they sit in on meetings, occasionally they attend the fundraisers, and they spend their own personal time, money, resources, all of this investing in going through all the applications that are sitting in front of their desk to confirm, approve or deny, you know, do their research on all the different cases. And so, I don't know if you want to or not, but let's talk to a little a little bit about the amount of notable people that are on the board that have served their time on the board that have given their their time and dedication and their That's their own personal time to help make the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund what it is.

Tom Feller: As I recall, the the original board was six members now we're up to 13. But Dr. J. Pat Evans and Don Andrews, who we've already talked about with sports medicine, they were original board members, a man that's being inducted into the pro Rodeo Hall of Fame this year as well. Brian McDonald was the poor writing director for years and years and years. He was an original director and is still a director. So we have the longevity of these guys. And along the way, such personalities as Charlie Daniels, the great Nolan Ryan, Walt Garrison, who impacted the sports medicine program, as well as the crisis fund have all been members. And of course, we have rodeo committees represented and the medical community as well representatives, because I don't recognize some of those terms. So I can't make a good evaluation I can most likely know the Cowboys in their situation. And between what the medical part A members of our board bring to the table, and what myself and Brian and others bring to the table, we can come up with the best solution for these guys. And we have rodeo committees on involved because rodeo committees are one of our biggest fundraisers. So there are they individually whether it's taking a tip jar from their bar at their rodeo, and making a donation to the crisis fund or having elaborate golf tournaments like San Antonio rodeo does and and the St. Paul Oregon rodeo that's going into the hall this this year as well. You know, they all make contributions to the fun and that's what makes it

Taylor McAdams: Oh, yes. And we absolutely have to mention a few more people, Patrick Gotch at the Cowboy Channel, Pam Minick, Jimmy Monroe, these legends get will live forever and go down in history as being kind as well. And I think it's really neat. I got to be a part of the fundraisers when I was traveling the rodeo road and there was fashion shows, barbecues, fish fries, anything you name it. So you heard it right there. It's so easy to have an event and raise money for the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund. If you're interested and curious and you want to be able to just donate your own funds, you're more than able and willing to you can go to Justin Cowboy Crisis fund.org. And give there it's very simple. You can do it online or through the phone, whatever you need to do. And I think this is a great opportunity to give back to a community that has given so much to you. If you're listening from the Western industry, or if you're just a fan of rodeo know that your money will go to such a great cause. I think that's so so important. So Tom, thank you for telling the story there. That's so iconic.

Tom Feller: Another way to cut contribute, Taylor is one of my favorites is to memorialize a loved one or friend or somebody in the sport that has passed, I'll send them a check in their memory. And you know, there's nothing better for that person that's passed to not you know, it's such an honor to, for them to have the knowledge or their family to have the knowledge that they are continuing to help the people in the Western industry in the western lifestyle that we all choose. So very, very much.

Taylor McAdams: You're exactly right. What a fun way to be able to honor your friends, loved ones, all of that. That's I so sad that I left that off. Thank you for bringing that up, Tom. That's something that I admire about you that you do personally. So thank you for that as well. And that just goes to show the board members that are involved. everyone that's involved with both the sport Justin Sportsmedicine Team® and the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund have a personal interest as well, their hearts are so big. And so I think that's what keeps keeps it all going to but before we go, I know we're about to run out of time, Tom, I want to talk with you a little bit more and pick your brain that the history buffs out there are going to love this. And even if you're not into history, you're going to love these stories that are about to be told to Tom, what was your life like? Through your career here at Justin, I know you were one of the very few that are still around that was fortunate enough to work with John S. Justin Jr. and go into his office and see the desk that he sits at that we still have today and preserve his memory. So what was what was it like the evolution of Justin and your perspective?

Tom Feller: Well, you know, there's been a common theme throughout this conversation that we're having. And that's one word in this Justin. And back when the company was started in 1879 and then by HJ Justin who was John Justin's grandfather. Towards the end of his life, he left a a statement, a mission statement for his company that has always resonated so much to me and my travels through the world of Justin and said, I wish to leave behind me an institution that will uphold the standards and spirit of the true west. That's such a powerful statement, because that's truly what Justin's have done throughout the history of the company continue to do now that there's not a Justin involved directly with the company. But that legacy lives on. And certainly, these programs are the epitome of protecting upholding the standards and spirit of the true west. 

Taylor McAdams: Wow, they really are and what a cool foundation to have, I mean, even through the generations of Justin's and then even now they've instilled that in you just you know, an employee of theirs so not even a family member, someone who grew to become like family, I would say just because you have the love and the passion for the family and, and everything that they stood for. What do you remember in the day to day? Was there any fun moments or memories that you got to experience?

Tom Feller: Oh, yeah, I mean, to to sit at the table with John and Jane, Justin was such an honor and have a meal or, or visit or go to their home and visit. But, you know, their memory is not something that's just pushed aside now that you know, we're a Berkshire Hathaway company. And you know, things are different, if you will, they're not so different. You know, and John and Jane Justin still impact not only rodeo, but to Fort Worth community and the world worldwide. So there's a foundation the John and Jane Justin Foundation that is so very active and benevolent gifts, grants, if you will, to places like TCU to building a chain and John Justin, surgical tower right here about a mile from our location, that give regularly to support Cook’s Children's Hospital, and all just it's It's unreal, millions and millions and millions of dollars that Justin and the foundation have put back into not only for it, but to the betterment of the world. The neurosurgical research that has happened with Cook's Children's Hospital, you know, that the foundation and make donations to is just incredible. The Leske legacy that has lived through the Justin name is not just a logo. It's a spirit.

Taylor McAdams: So you mentioned before in your response that you got to sit at the same table as the Justin's and John and Jane, Justin and I heard that Jane Justin was an incredible cook. I've seen her cookbook, I've tried to follow some of her recipes. Did you ever get to enjoy a home cooked meal?

Tom Feller: I won't say that I did. But I did get to dine with them. And you talk about the most elegant lady you've ever seen. I mean, it's just such such a wonderful story. And Mr. Justin surrounded himself. I mean, he's been 20 plus years as chairman of the board of Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. He could tell you everybody that was a volunteer their names and what they did to help the Stock Show and Rodeo. So the Justin blueprint, if you will, is all over the city of Fort Worth. It's all over the state of Texas, and it's all over the world.

Taylor McAdams: It really is and being an Okie becoming a Texas transplant. That was one of the coolest things I latched on to was that it didn't matter how much money they had or who they were or their involvement and what elite causes from what I've learned and the history that I've seen written. They loved so big and they gave back wherever they could and to be even it's 2023 and to have them still being talked about and their legacy living on I feel is incredible. And me personally as a woman I love going through our archives and seeing all of Jane Justin's clothing. You said that she was a phenomenal woman and I agree she's she's very elegant and so I think it's so cool that you got to have you got to be a part of that in your work life when you were kind of just starting out to do you remember your first memory of meeting Mr. Justin?

Tom Feller: You know, I would see the Justin's rodeos around and long before I Quit clowning. I was able to help with the National Finals Rodeo with The sponsor relationship. And so I might see Mr. Justin once a year. And he would remember me call me by name. And that was the most phenomenal thing to me that, you know, somebody of his stature in the community could remember my name, you know, and I wasn't connected to his company in any way. Nor did I have even the slightest premonition that I ever would be. But the, the Justin's and what they represent, are just always so very genuine. Make no mistake about it, the man wanted to make money, and wanted to make the best boots or wear and sell boats. But he was so so generous, as was she, with what they had, and paying back to the paying it forward, if you will.

Taylor McAdams: And I think it's really neat for me to see the the love and the spirit that that they've left in you that you continue on in the day to day, I mean, any of our meetings, you're always the one that we go to, to make sure everything was on brand with what the Justin brand stands for. And so I can't help but ask you where do you see the future of Justin going?

Tom Feller: Well, we're very fortunate, and that has been part of Shoe Holdings, which is a much, much bigger component to footwear, inside the Berkshire Hathaway family. We're very fortunate that those people understand, respect, and admire the history, not only of Justin but my goodness, Tony Lama as well. The stories of Tony Lama and his boot company that he founded, and the stories of Miss Enid Justin, who was the daughter of HJ Justin who went on when her brothers moved the Justin boot company to Fort Worth in 1925. She said no, I don't think my daddy would have wanted it that way. She started in a corner, Texas 1925 depression. And a lady starts her own company and makes a splash and is still around the day.

Taylor McAdams: Yeah, that's just so incredible to hear the history and to think back that you're exactly right, a woman in 1925 started her own company that that is so inspiring, and it does provide hope for the Western industry as a whole, but then also the boot making community. I truly feel that the future is bright. And I want to say thank you for taking the time to talk with us today about it all, Tom, you have been a role model and a mentor to me, and I can't say thank you enough for continuing to stand your ground and to uphold the best standards and to teach the young ones important to us so we can continue to keep the West alive and to just live out the Spirit of the West. So thank you again, Tom, for being on. I look forward to the future. And I'm so thankful for your stories.

Tom Feller: Thank you so much Taylor.

Taylor McAdams: Thanks for joining us on kick your boots up. I'm your host Taylor McAdams and we can't wait to share the next story of the West. Until then, feel free to like subscribe and leave us a review. Follow us on social media at Justin Boots to keep up with our next episode. And we'll see you the next time you kick your boots up.