By: Justin Felisko
February 26, 2016
ARLINGTON, Tex. – Keyshawn Whitehorse leaned over the balcony and looked down below him during the 2015 Iron Cowboy introductions last February.
The then 17-year-old was sitting in the upper deck of AT&T Stadium at the 50-yard line as the Top 40 bull riders in the world began to make their way toward center stage.
Whitehorse saw his mentor, three-time World Finals event winner Robson Palermo, tip his hat to the crowd, he then saw three-time World Champion Silvano Alves make a courtesy wave to the packed stadium, and, most of all, he had a bird’s-eye view of the PBR World Championship trophy standing in all of its glory as the lasers and pyrotechnics went wild beside it.
The high school bull rider couldn’t help but contain his excitement as he envisioned what it would feel like to be one of those Top 40 riders walking across the home field of the Dallas Cowboys on the PBR’s biggest stage.
He thought to himself, “The trophy is right there in front of me. It is right there in my grasps. I can feel it.”
It was the sixth consecutive year that Whitehorse was attending Iron Cowboy. Ever since the PBR first hosted its Iron Cowboy event at AT&T Stadium in 2012, Whitehorse has done his best to save his money from amateur bull ridings and other odd jobs to help pay for his ticket.
This year will be different, though, for The Woodlands, Texas, native.
The 18-year-old won’t have to pay for a ticket, and he won’t have to sit in the upper deck for the seventh time with his mom, Del, father, Norbert, and two brothers, James (8) and Shaq (23).
Instead, Whitehorse will be making his Built Ford Tough Series debut at the Choctaw Casino Iron Cowboy, powered by Kawasaki, Saturday night after earning a BlueDEF Tour event exemption by winning the Salt Lake City BlueDEF event three weeks ago.
“I have been there every year since it started, and I told myself one day I was actually going to be there,” Whitehorse said. “I have pictured myself in the chute there. I have imagined it. Every time from the beginning ride to the last ride, I have always tried to build up that feeling in my chest like I was in the chute and everything was on the line.”
Whitehorse – a full-blooded Navajo/ Diné Native American – has been dreaming about one day making his BFTS debut ever since he woke up during the middle of the night when he was 5 years old.
5-year-old Whitehorse had stumbled his way downstairs and curled up next to his dad around 11 p.m., with a bull riding event on the family’s television. Almost instantly, Keyshawn became enthralled with the brave cowboys trying to make 8 seconds aboard animals with no regard for their human challenger’s safety.
“I opened my mouth and said, ‘I want to do that one day,’” Keyshawn recalled. “Ever since then, he signed me up for bull riding school a couple of days later and I was hooked.”
Keyshawn eventually got on steers, amateur bulls and even competed in the Miniature Bull Riders Association that has bull ridings during PBR events, including during this weekend’s Iron Cowboy.
He actually never got to ride at a PBR event as a kid, which Keyshawn can now laugh about.
“I was always really mad about that when I was younger because I rode fine,” Whitehorse said. “It was like every event that would qualify me to ride, someone else would beat me. I would always be in like second place and pissed off.
“It is OK. I am now a true professional bull rider.”
However, the biggest development in his career came from a Facebook message his mom sent to Priscila Palermo, the wife of Robson, when he was 13 years old.
Del began talking to Priscila about Keyshawn, and eventually the Palermo’s invited the Whitehorse’s over for dinner roughly five years ago.
“I didn’t bring any training clothes that day or nothing,” Keyshawn said. “I started training and it was pretty hot. It was during the summer time. It was mainly form training with where your arm should be in certain areas. It was something I had seen before because it was a Brazilian technique. I have always been a fan of all the Brazilian riders and Robson was the first one I really got to become friends with.
“From then we just kind of connected. I think he felt like I had a different emotion about bull riding from other people he had seen.”
Palermo said, “We started training together and doing some stuff. He showed me how he rides and I told him what he was doing wrong. He really moved his arm a lot before. I will watch TV and tell him, do this and do that. He is a very smart guy. He trains hard and he trains every day.”
Whitehorse, who is currently finishing his high school education with online classes, finished runner-up for the Texas High School Bull Riding state title last year and placed fourth at the 2015 National High School Finals Rodeo. He also has won the Section 5 bull riding title two consecutive years in Texas.
The two bull riders remain in contact on a weekly basis and Whitehorse traveled with Palermo in the offseason to a couple of BlueDEF Tour events.
The two will once again share a locker room on Saturday night when a strong test awaits Whitehorse for his debut.
“Oh my gosh, he has grown a lot,” Palermo said. “When I saw him for the first time, he was a little bitty kid. He has been working on his body, building his muscle. He looks good. He is lean and fast. He does all kinds of crazy training. He is going to be great. He is a young guy. He has bucked off some bulls at the BlueDEF deal, but for sure you are going to see him pretty quick on the Built Ford Tough.”
Whitehorse has gone 6-for-15 at non-BFTS events this year and is 50th in the world standings.
He has drawn the 2,300-pound Mississippi Hippy (35-3, BFTS) for Round 1.
It won’t be easy, but Whitehorse couldn’t have asked for a better place to make his BFTS debut.
“Every year I go there, it is always a new feeling, especially when I walk in,” Whitehorse concluded. “I feel this is the next closest thing to the World Finals and to be able to ride there is a true blessing.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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