By: Keith Ryan Cartwight
Fred Whitfield is the most accomplished Black rodeo cowboy of all time.
So, it is only fitting the eight-time PRCA World Champion roper will be in the CBS broadcast booth alongside Craig Hummer and Ty Murray for the historic airing for the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo Showdown in Las Vegas.
The Juneteenth television special will be the first time an all-Black rodeo has been broadcast on network television.
When listed among the most significant moments involving Black cowboys and rodeo — Bill Pickett developing what would later become steer wrestling, the American Black Cowboy Association hosting an all-Black rodeo in Harlem, Myrtis Dightman becoming the first Black cowboy to qualify for the National Finals rodeo, Charlie Sampson becoming the first to win a PRCA world title, and Whitfield winning multiple gold buckles — there is no greater moment in the past 100 years than seeing a Bill Pickett rodeo on network television.
After announcing a partnership with the nation’s leading all-Black touring rodeo in February, PBR will co-produce its first Bill Pickett event on June 13 in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
CBS will air a one-hour special featuring highlights and event storylines Saturday, June 19 at 1 p.m. ET.
The decision to air this event on Juneteenth — the date honoring the end of slavery in the United States and celebration of the oldest African American holiday — only adds to the significance of this historic milestone in western sports.
“Our association with the PBR is so exciting because they are the world’s premier bull riding organization who can allow us to tell our story and share our experience with audiences all across the world that we couldn’t reach previously,” said Valeria Howard-Cunningham, President and Owner, BPIR. “The promise of this partnership was for PBR to help deliver our message by exposing us and putting us on TV. And now it’s happening. There’s so much good that can come out of this partnership.”
The following is a partial excerpt of a profile of Fred Whitfield from the forthcoming book, “Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West.”
“I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”
The Fred Whitfield story has never been foremost about the color of his skin. Yes, he is a Black rodeo cowboy, and, yes, he has faced his share of racism—in and out of the rodeo arena—but Whitfield’s story is one of greatness that puts the eight-time PRCA World Champion in a conversation among the greatest athletes of all time.
Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
Joe Montana and Tom Brady.
Richard Petty and A.J. Foyt.
Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.
Each of those athletes knew the difference between merely competing at an elite level and knowing how to win, but every one of their competitors and legions of fans—then and especially now—were also aware of their greatness.
It was that undeniable lack of doubt—in themselves and from others—that separated them from everyone else, and it is what separates Fred Whitfield from other tie-down ropers.
The greats never blend in.
In fact, they often stand out at a young age.
“You can’t instill a killer instinct in people,” Whitfield said. “You either got it, or you don’t.”
He added, “You know what I think it is? I was friends with a lot of people until I backed in the box, and I don’t want to use the word ‘hate’ because that would not be the right word, but we were not friends when it comes to competition. We were friends afterward, but as long as I was competing against you, you were my enemy. And that’s just the way I approached it. There was no doubt that I could win anytime I wanted to. And I could beat anybody at any given moment, no matter who it was.”
There are those who see Whitfield as arrogant or cocky, but, decades earlier, many said the same about Ali and later Jordan. The truth is, like Ali and Jordan, the statistics and laundry list of accomplishments prove Whitfield to be as great as he said he was.
From 1990 until 2019, when he officially retired following his appearance at Rodeo Houston—that kind of longevity is unheard of in other sports—Whitfield was a dominating force in the sport of rodeo.
In being named rookie of the year, he was only the second first-year tie-down roper to qualify for the NFR. A year later, in 1991, he won his first PRCA tie-down title. He followed with six more in 1995, ’96, ’99, 2000, ’02, and ’05.
He added an all-around PRCA gold buckle in 1999.
He was the second Black cowboy to win a PRCA championship (third if you include Dwayne Hargo Sr.’s title in the Wrangler Bullfights), the first to do so in a timed event, and the first to win multiple gold buckles—eight of them in a sixteen-year period—in what TheUndefeated.com coined the “National Football League of rodeos.”
Whitfield qualified for the NFR seventeen consecutive years, proving not only his durability and resilience when it came to injuries—or lack thereof—but also a consistency that has galvanized him as the most successful and accomplished Black rodeo cowboy of all time.
If anyone else, regardless of their ethnicity, was going to win the PRCA tie-down title—be it Joe Beaver, Cody Ohl, Monty Lewis, Trevor Brazile, or Stan Smith—they were going to have to beat Whitfield in the midst of the golden age of calf roping, which later became known as tie-down roping.
“Fred Whitfield is a true American sports champion,” said Cleo Hearn, who was the first African American to turn pro as a tie-down roper in the PRCA.
As much as he loved winning, he hated losing even more.
Whitfield was known for competing with as much urgency at the first event in early January as he did at the finals in mid-December. He was never, ever relaxed until he damn sure knew he had qualified for Las Vegas.
“The season starts in January . . . and nine times out of ten, I could make my reservations for Las Vegas in June,” Whitfield said. “There was never any question of if I was going to qualify.”
He added, “I realized at about sixteen years old that I was pretty gifted and talented, but, I mean, I’d worked my tail off up until that point. It wasn’t like I just woke up one day and was sixteen years old and was going to be a world champion.”
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the culmination of a historic Western sports weekend pairing the PBR Unleash The Beast (June 11-12) with the BPIR’s first event of 2021 on Sunday, June 13.
Keith Ryan Cartwright, a former editorial director and senior writer for PBR.com, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West,” which will be released wherever books are sold Nov. 1. Cartwright is contributing an ongoing series featuring Black cowboys and cowgirls throughout the 2021 season.
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