When Fred Whitfield backs into the roping box at the Fort Worth Stock Show, it’s the rodeo equivalent of Jackie Robinson walking to the plate.
Robinson was the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. Though Whitfield is not the first black cowboy to compete on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, he is by far the most successful.
Whitfield is the only African-American who has earned a PRCA world all-around title, a feat he accomplished in 1999. He’s also lassoed seven world tie-down roping championships.
With all that going for him, Whitfield, 46, who lives in Hockley, was the marquee competitor at the Fort Worth Stock Show’s traditional Cowboys of Color Rodeo, which was conducted Monday in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
During a sold-out performance at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, Whitfield clinched the tie-down roping title after turning in a blistering time of 8.7 seconds.
“There were a lot of pioneers who paved the way for me, and so to come and compete on Martin Luther King Day is an honor and it makes me feel good inside,” Whitfield said. “If we don’t carry on his legacy, then who will?”
Whitfield said it’s important to remember King’s work.
“When I go speak at schools, I tell the students, ‘Let’s honor the people who went before us because they paid a price,’ ” Whitfield said. “I just want to give what support I can and try to pave the way for somebody else to be successful whether it’s in education or rodeo or marbles.”
Whitfield is among two African-American competitors who have earned a PRCA world title. The first was bull rider Charlie Sampson, who won the gold buckle in 1982.
After competing in the Cowboys of Color Rodeo on Monday afternoon, Whitfield migrated to the Stock Show’s exhibit hall to promote his new book, Gold Buckles Don’t Lie: The Untold Tale of Fred Whitfield.
“It’s my life story, and there’s a lot of things in there that people didn’t know about me,” Whitfield said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to hide things over the years. I just wanted to focus on the positive.”
In the book, Whitfield tells many stories about himself, such as briefly using cocaine in the 1980s and being near the scene of an 1996 auto accident in Oregon that took the life of world-class roper Shawn McMullan.
With 20 berths in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and a new book on his illustrious career, Whitfield has gained multitudes of fans, including Bob Tallman, the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo’s longtime legendary announcer.
“Fred Whitfield will be remembered as the African-American cowboy who changed the destiny of black athletes in the western industry,” Tallman said. “He has had lots of longevity, and with his book, he will go on to greater heights.”