Everyone knows him at the Calgary Stampede rodeo office. They call out to him, shake his hand, ask how he’s been.
Fred Whitfield insists he is fine, but he has been doing a whole lot better than that.
Last season, the soon-to-be-45-year-old Texan topped the $3-million (U.S.) mark in career earnings – a remarkable feat considering he has earned all his money in tie-down roping (or calf roping as he prefers to dub it). Just recently, he was inducted into the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, making him an enshrined member in four different rodeo halls across the continent.
That tends to happen when you’ve been to the Calgary Stampede 21 times in the last 23 years, won it three times, qualified for the National Finals Rodeo 19 times, been a world champion eight times and is only the second African-American cowboy to win a world title.
The first was Charles Sampson, who claimed the bull riding crown in 1982. Sampson competed at the Stampede and won. So did Myrtis Dightman, considered the Jackie Robinson of pro rodeo, who took the Stampede bull riding honours in 1971.
When Guy Weadick founded the Calgary Stampede 100 years ago, he decreed it an open rodeo, no distinctions, no exceptions.
Whitfield has always felt welcomed in the Foothills City, where the prize money is rich and the competition as thick as horse flies.
“I could have gone to a couple of other rodeos,” said Whitfield, who rode Tuesday for the first time at the 2012 Stampede. “But when Calgary called and invited me, I couldn’t say no. This place has been good to me.”
Whitfield can’t say the same for every place he’s been or everyone he’s encountered. In his early days touring the United States, he was heckled and harangued.
As bad as it got, it was worse for the black cowboys who preceded Whitfield. They weren’t allowed to rope and ride against white competitors.
Whitfield tells a story passed along by the legendary Dightman, who broke the NFR colour barrier in 1967, by doing his bull rides when the show was over. For whatever reason, Dightman’s scores weren’t quite as high as they were for the other cowboys.
Those tales, and how Whitfield earned the scar that runs parallel to his left jaw line (“I got cut by a knife when I was 19 in a bar in Oakland, California”) are being saved for a book he’s working on.
The memoir will be a tell-all; helping him put it together is noted tell-all artist, former basketball star Charles Barkley.
“The main reason I’ve held back [from telling his stories to the media] is because I felt it could hurt me,” Whitfield said, alluding to the possible loss of business opportunities or sponsorships. “I don’t know the percentage of blacks who rodeoed back then [from the 1940s to the ’60s]. But I do know there were several good cowboys who didn’t get a chance to show what they could do because of the colour of their skin.”
Whitfield noted his book will be constructive in tone and tell of how he fell in love with rodeoing at 5; how he used extension cords as lariats and roped his mother, brother and sister when they least expected it.
From there, Whitfield was befriended by Roy Moffitt of the Moffitt Oil family. Moffitt helped pay Whitfield’s rodeo fees. Later, in his rookie season as a professional cowboy, Whitfield travelled with fellow Texan Roy (Super Looper) Cooper, a seven-time world champ.
Cooper once said of Whitfield: “He’s the most athletic calf roper in the business. He’s got great speed, strength, timing and accuracy.”
Others speak of Whitfield’s qualities as a man.
“He’s one of those guys I watched growing up,” said Matt Shiozawa, the 32-year-old Idaho cowboy who won Tuesday’s tie-down event. “He’s always been a classy guy, a stud, a professional. He was a good role model for me.”
Having averaged anywhere from 70 to 100 rodeos a year, enhancing a reputation for diligence, longevity and success, Whitfield hopes to scale it back a little so he can spend more time with his wife and daughters at their ranch in Hockley, Tex.
That day is coming, but it’s not here yet for a cowboy that still wants to win, still needs to rodeo.
“I’ve always done it my way,” he said outside the Stampede rodeo office, his home away from home. “I have no regrets.
“Those tough times? I’ve tried to never let that stuff bother me. I’ve met a lot of good people along the way. All I ever wanted to do was rope.”