Rodeo fans who have grown accustomed to watching Fred Whitfield “raise the roof” at the Thomas & Mack Center the last 23 years better get their fix this December.
The eight-time world champion and Hall of Fame tie-down roper is making his 20th – and likely final – appearance at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this year, and he plans to go out on his terms and on his timetable. The 45-year-old Whitfield has grown tired of the grind of a long ProRodeo season, and so he plans to transition into semi-retirement in 2013.
As a gift to his fans, and to fully encapsulate his storied career, Whitfield has teamed with writer Terri Powers to pen his biography, titled “Gold Buckles Don’t Lie, The Untold Tale of Fred Whitfield.” The book – due out in early 2013 – will have some surprises for Whitfield’s fans as it thoroughly tells the story of his life from the beginning.
Whitfield wanted to give his friends and fans an unflinching look at his past, and to be an open book about the ups and downs of his career and his life after years of being a consummate pro who kept his private life at arms length during his career.
The process of researching, interviewing people and writing the book was a tough one for Whitfield and Powers, but also one that the Hall of Famer enjoyed.
“It’s been a little bit of both (hard and fun),” said Whitfield, a 2004 ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee. “It’s been quite the process and was something new to me, but I’m excited about it. There have been bits and pieces of my life story told, but not the entire story from start to finish.
“I think it’ll be a good story.”
Fred actually used the word “retiring” in his phone conversation with me, and I could tell that the 23-year vet was sincere about his aim to transition away from full-time competition.
“The miles have worn on me in the last few years, and honestly, I don’t crave the miles as much as I used to,” he said. “Hell, I’d rodeo until I was 50 if I didn’t have to travel. I don’t crave getting in a truck, driving 1,000 miles and then bouncing out and trying to tie one in seven. It’s not as easy as it used to be.”
Fans will still be able to see the beloved Texan, who now lives in Hockley, at a handful of the bigger rodeos in the coming years. He’ll compete in them for the chance at a big pay day, but also to develop some horses he’d like to sell.
“A guy would be crazy not to go to Fort Worth, San Antone and Houston, because they’re right here in my back yard,” he said. “But I’m not going to go to 20 or 25 rodeos next year. I’ve been training some young horses the last three to five years, and I’ve got some that are ready to go. I’ve got to get them out there and get them some exposure to be able to ask the money I think they’re worth.”
Whitfield has been amazed by how quickly his career has flown by.
“It’s been a great ride, but it’s happened so fast,” he said. “Who would have thought 23 years would have gone by as fast as they have? When I look back to my rookie year in 1990 to this year in 2012, this has probably been the fastest 23 years of my life. I think the older you get, the faster it goes by.”
His goals for the 2012 Wrangler NFR? They are simple, especially for a guy who won tie-down roping gold buckles in 1991, from 1995-96, 1999-2000 and in 2002 and 2005 and who claimed the 1999 all-around crown.
“For me to sit here and tell you that I’m going to go and win the world – I’m so far back, they don’t even know I’m chasing them,” said Whitfield, who enters the 10-day rodeo in 12th place, $74,014 behind world standings leader Justin Maass. “My thing is, I want to go there, have some fun and win as much money as I can. If that means an average title, what a way to wrap it up.
“I’m not going to try and make any predictions. I’m going to go there and run every calf for what he is and try to win as much money as I can. If you’d have talked to me 10 years ago at this time, I would have said, ‘Damn right I’m going to win the world.’”
But times have changed, Whitfield is physically and mentally tired, and he is content to begin the next chapter of his life. That process will be greatly aided by the production of his book, which will end with the story of his 2012 Wrangler NFR.
For Powers, a longtime writer who grew up going to the Finals in Oklahoma City, the chance to work with Whitfield on the project has been a dream come true.
“I’ve been a writer for more than 20 years and have adored Fred Whitfield for 20 years, but never put the two together,” said Powers, whose father provided the bucking and timed-event chutes for the NFR in the 1960s. “I have just always thought he was the coolest cowboy at the rodeo. I can’t believe my good fortune that nobody has done this story. It’s crazy. The story just writes itself, and I can’t wait for people to read it.”
The tale of how Powers and Whitfield came to meet at the 2010 Wrangler NFR and discuss the book idea is quite the story in and of itself.
“It was totally crazy,” said Powers, who has been a newspaper writer and run a commercial writing business in the past. “I was joking when everybody asked me why I was going to Vegas, and I said, ‘I’m going to see Fred Whitfield.’ We get off the plane, go directly to the MGM – and I hadn’t even been in town for an hour – and I open the door to the MGM, and there he was, standing there looking at me.
“From then on, I couldn’t swing a dead cat in Las Vegas without hitting Fred Whitfield. The last night I was there, it was like boom, and it hit me. I asked him if he’d ever thought about (writing a book), and he said, ‘Yeah.’ It just went on from there.”
Powers and Whitfield will post new samples of the book on Whitfield’s website, fredwhitfield.com, each night of the Wrangler NFR this year, giving fans a glimpse of what they can expect to find in the book next year. Fans can join a VIP mailing list on the site in order to assure themselves of getting the first copies printed, and Whitfield will be doing regular autograph sessions at the MGM Grand while he’s in Las Vegas this December.
Whether they self-publish the book or go through a mainstream publisher, Powers is excited to be bringing the story to the world on Whitfield’s behalf.
“I think people will be astounded by his story,” she said. “It takes some nerve to lay your guts on the line, and he did. I see Fred Whitfield as a slice of Americana, and I’m hoping it will have a lot of mainstream appeal.”
I asked Whitfield if he was at peace with his decision to retire from being a full-timer.
“I am,” he said. “I’ve fought it for the last three years. This year, I just want to go to the Finals and have a good showing. To say I’m going out on top would be overstating it for me, but it’s nice to still be competitive and have a voice when it comes to calf roping.”
His fans will have a chance to have their voices heard when he’s in the arena and while he’s “raising the roof” for the last time.