Twenty-two years ago, Ford saddled up for the sport’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Ford also will be introduced as the Cowboys of Color Rodeo’s defending tie-down roping champion. Last year, he stunned the capacity crowd at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum by clinching the title with a time of 9.6 seconds, a remarkable feat for a 52-year-old cowboy.
However, Ford is among a very small percentage of gifted African-American rodeo competitors who have persevered and thrived in rodeo’s major leagues.
For example, Cory Solomon, also a tie-down roper, was the only African-American among a field of 120 contestants who qualified for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s 59th annual National Finals Rodeo in December in Las Vegas.
Since the National Finals was birthed in 1959 in Dallas, African-American competitors have comprised less than 10 percent of the field each year.
In an attempt to see more representation from African-Americans and other minority races at high-profile rodeos, Cleo Hearn of Lancaster has organized a Cowboys of Color Rodeo circuit. Hearn, who has produced rodeos for minority competitors since the 1970s, said the circuit serves as a “farm league” to equip gifted African-Americans to break out of the amateur ranks and become successful pro riders.
Ford is one of those rare success stories. He learned to rope at the weekly amateur Kowbell Rodeo in Mansfield where his father worked. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Ford was in a comfort zone of buying and selling auto parts and making good money competing in amateur rodeos close to home on the weekends.
Weekend after weekend, Ford turned in blistering times in the tie-down roping event to the extent that his fans were grieved that he was refraining from turning pro. When he did, he got immediate results. However, he clinched the tie-down roping title at the Fort Worth Stock Show’s renowned Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association show in 1995. A year later, Ford qualified for the National Finals.
Over the years, the PRCA has accommodated world-class competitors such as bull rider Myrtis Dightman, who qualified for the National Finals in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1982, Sampson became the first African-American to clinch a PRCA world title when the spunky, charismatic cowboy from Los Angeles took the gold buckle in bull riding, the sport’s most dangerous event.
In 1999, Whitfield, who was from the Houston area, became the first African-American to clinch the PRCA’s world all-around title, which traditionally is billed as pro rodeo’s most prestigious annual award. Whitfield also earned seven world tie-down roping world championships between 1990 and 2005.
Still, there has been no significant increase in world-class African-American competitors.
Ford and Whitfield cite various reasons, including confidence and money.
“I don’t think they have confidence,” Ford said. “You have to have confidence in your performance.”
Whitfield said the financial burden can be overwhelming.
In tie-down roping, for example, one of the biggest challenges is acquiring a horse that can consistently help a cowboy finish in the money. Whitfield said the cost of a dependable horse would start at $40,000 and run more than $100,000. Then, there are soaring road costs.
“There’s the cost of a $65,000 truck and a $100,000 trailer so they have something livable to run up and down the road,” Whitfield said. “You also have about $25,000 a year in entry fees and another $30,000 in diesel. You have to have some pretty good money to get all that stuff going.”
However, Whitfield bucked the odds as he was breaking into the PRCA circuit in the late 1980s. He said he had the financial backers who admired his talent and supplied the working capital he needed.
“Somebody saw something in me to help me along the way,” Whitfield said. “If that had not happened, who knows where Fred Whitfield would be? I had people behind me who had a lot of money who made it available to me.”
Whitfield said he continually runs across gifted African-Americans who show lots of potential. However, they don’t turn pro.
“There’s a lot of African-Americans out there, but for some odd reason, they won’t venture outside of their element,” he said. “I talk to guys all of the time and I tell them, ‘You’re not getting younger and you’re talented enough.’ The difference for me is when I got to where I won everything around home, the high school and college rodeos, I wanted to take my talent on the road. I always wanted to see how I measured up with the best guys out there. I wanted to go to the next level.”
Hearn also pointed to performing on the road.
“A lot of African-Americans are afraid to get away from home. Their comfort zone is close to home,” Hearn said. “But in my case, the comfort zone was wherever I wanted to drive. It’s also how bad you wanted to see how good you are. I wanted to be a cowboy and I wanted to make money. I liked all of the things that were going to make me different.”
Hearn grew up in rural Seminole, Okla., and had the opportunity to learn to rope from personal friends while growing up though his parents had no rodeo background. Captivated by roping and the cowboy lifestyle, he sought help from world class competitors and honed his skills enough to receive a rodeo scholarship at Oklahoma State.
Hearn also acquired a PRCA membership card in 1959 and became a noticeable competitor. In 1970, he clinched the tie-down roping title at the National Western Stock Show Rodeo in Denver, which traditionally is one of the larger winter pro rodeos.
One person who has listened to Hearn is Solomon, a cowboy from Prairie View who has earned five trips to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in tie-down roping.
During Solomon’s boyhood days, Hearn gave him the opportunity to make exhibition runs at the Cowboys of Color Rodeos. He wowed crowds with his ability to rope a calf off of a smaller horse. Whitfield also helped Solomon with his roping career.
“You have to have the sponsorship to go and the money to go,” he said. “You still have to have the drive. It doesn’t matter what color you are. You have to have the attitude to know how to lose and how to win. You have to set your mind to it and go down the long road. It ain’t easy, but if you keep fighting , you’ll make it. No matter how hard it was, I never gave up.”
Jim Austin, the director of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth who is a key organizer of the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, said more needs to be done to engage young kids of color in farming and ranching. As they are exposed to the agriculture and western lifestyles, they in turn would more naturally be attracted to avidly pursuing a rodeo career.
“It’s all right for our kids to see legends like Cleo (Hearn) and Fred (Whitfield) on a horse,” Austin said. “But we have to get our kids more involved in 4-H and ranch management and the programs that promote the culture of ranching and farming.
“Until you reach the kids from an educational standpoint, they are not just going to understand when they see someone out there. So, that’s what’s going to have to happen to get more kids of color involved.”
Cowboys of Color Rodeo
2 p.m. Monday
Will Rogers Coliseum, Fort Worth