The Long Goodbye
Honestly speaking, I needed a final chapter. I could care less about a pity party for me leaving rodeo. That’s just not in my DNA. But I’m at peace now that I finally put a bow on it.
Back in 2012, I thought I’d come to the end of my rodeo career. At the National Finals Rodeo that year, I had a seven- or eight-second lead going into the ninth and tenth rounds. At the Thomas & Mack, they made a big announcement that I was retiring. I thought, What better way to go out than winning another gold buckle? It all came down to the last two calves. I drew pretty shitty and, hell, I was 46 or 47 years old by then. That might have been the end for me, if only I’d have won the world that year. But it all fell apart.
I rodeoed in 2014 and didn’t make the Finals. I rodeoed a little bit in 2015. That’s when we started the Elite Rodeo Athletes, or ERA. I was one of the original investors. It was a room full of eleven or twelve cowboys with a big idea. I didn’t buy my PRCA card in 2016. We thought we could make it work, but we didn’t.
The older you get, the harder it is to qualify for the NFR. I went to seventeen in a row before I missed one. The only reason I missed it in 2007 is because I got hurt. I had surgery on my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae. The doctors didn’t release me until June, around the time of the Reno Rodeo. I went up to Calgary that year and won the Stampede, took home $118,000, money that didn’t count towards PRCA standings. From Reno to the end of the season, I went to fifty-five PRCA rodeos—flying, renting cars, doing all kind of stuff to make the Finals—and I missed it by $18,000. I could have come home from Calgary with $118,000 and called it good and saved a bunch of money. But that’s the nature of rodeo. It gets its hooks into you.
These last few years, I’ve been having clinics and riding outside horses and damn sure doing some manual labor. But I never officially said goodbye to rodeo.
A good friend of mine, Casey Butaud, came to me in the summer of 2017. He said, “Man, I want to rodeo next year.”
“Casey,” I said, “I don’t have no interest in rodeoing. I’m pretty much done.”
“Ah, come on. I want you to go.”
Hell, I did not want to go. Money goes fast when you’re trying to make the NFR. When Fred Whitfield goes to sixty-five or seventy rodeos and wins $49,000—and spends probably $70,000 trying to win that—and doesn’t make the National Finals, then, hey, the writing’s on the wall.
I’ll tell you something that petrifies me. I’ve watched a lot of top guys leave the sport of rodeo with absolutely nothing, not two rusty nickels to rub together. Me? I didn’t want to be one of them. I’ve won a lot in my career. On record, there’s more than $3 million. But that’s over a twenty-seven-fricking-year career—not counting what it costs to get up and down the road.
When I saw my career starting to decline, I started to see some of the signs of the stuff I’ve witnessed. I said, It’s time to put shit in perspective. I needed to be honest with myself and with my wife, Cassie. There’s such a thing as hanging on too long.
So I found a guy that would go with Casey, and he laid off me for a while.
But then Casey said, “I need to buy a good horse.” I got on the phone and helped him find one. He bought that one in August of 2017 and said, “Find me another. I want two.”
By that fall, he had several horses bought. He had this fancy-ass rig. I was helping him, riding all these horses between my house and his house, and trying to keep it all together.
Right before the books closed at Denver—for the 2018 National Western Stock Show and Rodeo—Casey said, “Man, I need you to go to Denver with me. I’ll haul the horses and pay for the diesel. All you gotta do is enter with me and keep the horses working.”
I thought, What the hell? Why not?
Even after the ERA and the whole fight with the PRCA and the quarrelling and the BS, I said to myself, I guess I’ll get my card back and rodeo.
I called at the last second—the day before—to buy my card to enter the qualifier at Denver. I got to the qualifier and won fifth in the first round and came back and placed in the average, like about fifth. It felt good and got me into the rodeo at Denver. In the meantime, I entered the rodeo at Fort Worth. I made some decent runs. I went back to Denver, roped my first one in eight seconds and missed my second one.
I went to Odessa and roped one that weighed about 300 pounds. It bounced all around and got all over me. I got violated. I went back to Fort Worth and got violated on my second one. I roped at Houston in 2018 but missed getting out of my semifinal round.
That was the rollercoaster I was on.
We went down to Florida. I missed at one rodeo and won third at another one. I was putting together a little bit of money. I needed to get around ten or eleven thousand won so I could get into some of the bigger rodeos. Otherwise, I would enter and get drawn out due to qualifications. That’s embarrassing for an eight-time world champion, don’t you think? People would ask, When are you up over here? And I’d have to say, Well, I got drawn out. It’s nobody’s fault but my own, but I think the system needs to change a little, not just because I’m an eight-time champion. It just needs to change, period.
Have You Lost Your Mind?
Right after Houston, we bought another horse for Casey. He rode him in a jackpot, and I vetted him the next day. I brought him home from the vet, and Casey was practicing on him that night, and that son-of-a-bitch reared up and flipped over backwards on him.
I called that guy that night and said, “Hey, you gotta come get this horse. He just reared up in the box, and I’m not real sure Casey’s okay.”
“How’s my horse,” he asked.
“Screw that horse. Come get him,” I said. “And bring the check back. Now.”
I waited for him until midnight, but he brought the check.
Casey wasn’t in any shape to rodeo—he tore a meniscus and knocked some of his front teeth loose—so he sent me and the driver on the road with his horses. We started out at Logandale, Nevada. I made a decent run on the first one. I came back and didn’t do any good.
We left there and went to Colorado and Utah and California. We drove through snowstorms. I was thinking, What in the hell are you doing, son? You’re 50 years old and you’re back out here rodeoing? Have you lost your damn mind?
We got to Red Bluff, California, in mid-April. I made a decent run on my first one. I came back and was 8.8 in the next round to place second. In the progressive round, I missed my calf. I thought, Everything’s gonna be okay. I’ll draw a few good ones here soon. I’ll get rolling here in a minute.
I left Red Bluff on Saturday and went down to Clovis. During the Wednesday slack, something happened. I don’t know if missed my right stirrup getting off or if my foot slipped, but I got jerked down. I landed on the side of my head. Hell, I got up, went down there and flanked the calf. It wasn’t a big deal. It had happened before.
That night my arm started hurting. I had a friction burn where the rope caught me. I thought, I’ll be alright. No big deal. I ran my second one the next day. The calf stepped under my slack, and I jerked it straight over backwards. I got flagged out. I was a little disappointed. All I needed was to be in the top 24 to get another one and give myself another chance. So, it was off to the next rodeo. If shit doesn’t work out at one, you gotta go to the next one.
I left there for the rodeo in Lakeside, California. That’s where Cassie’s from. I placed third and thought, Hey, I might be alright after all. But the next day, when I woke up, man, I couldn’t hardly pick my arm up.
I set out for home, overnighting in Phoenix and again in Fort Stockton, Texas. When I got home, I told Cassie, “I’m friggin’ hurt.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Everything. My neck, my arm. I don’t have any feeling in my damn hand.”
I got an MRI in Houston. The doctor I saw told me it was the vertebrae in my neck and that I needed surgery. I didn’t like what he was telling me, so I waited a couple of weeks, but the pain wouldn’t go away. I finally got in to see Dr. Andrew Dossett, who did my first surgery back in 2007.
“Fred, it looks bad,” he said, explaining that the best chance at stopping the pain was to fuse the bones in my neck. “But I’m telling you right now, if you do surgery, you’re done roping. Forever.”
If I skipped the surgery, I probably wouldn’t hurt my neck any worse than it was, but I wasn’t going to be competitive. I still didn’t have any feeling in two of my fingers and a thumb.
He put me on physical therapy and some all-natural medicine. I did that for two or three months and didn’t hardly rope at all. I’d pick up a rope to swing it to see if things were getting better. Hell, I couldn’t get my rope up the way I’m accustomed to. It took me a minute to get it going around good. I was like, Here we go again.
I started soliciting outside horses. A guy’s gotta do something to make a living, right? Before you know it, I had seven or eight horses at the house. I hired a couple kids to help me. That was going pretty good. It got to where I was making a halfway decent living. But it’s hard work saddling horses every morning and roping on them. It’s something I love to do, but it turned into my job.
Casey got better and rodeoed all summer. He wanted me to rodeo with him—I was still entered in Cheyenne and a few more—but I didn’t get the feeling back in my hand and fingers until the end of the summer. I told him I was pretty much done.
Reality set in. I thought, Man, this is not working. And then, in August, a buddy told me about an opening driving a fuel truck. He was like, You can’t do both. You can’t be half-in and half-out. Sure, I could keep making a decent living training and riding and going to a few amateur rodeos here and there. Or, I could take the job and have insurance and peace of mind.
I’m from Cypress, Texas, but back in 1994, I bought a place in Hockley with money I won at the Calgary Stampede. It had appreciated in value quite a bit. Cassie and I figured we could sell it, get a smaller place and have some money set aside. The minute we put it on the market, we started getting offers. And then I moved from driving the fuel truck to outside sales at the oil and gas company. Everything came to a head. I said, I’m probably not gonna rodeo much anymore.
One Last Hurrah
In recent years, even as I started slowing down, I always got invited to compete at Rodeo Houston. Hell, I won it in 2013. But last year, I started hearing that Rodeo Houston was going back to being a PRCA rodeo. I thought, There’s no chance I’m gonna get to rope at Houston now. I bet they won’t invite anyone besides the top qualifiers.
I got the invitation sometime in January. I was excited. I mean, it’s my hometown fricking rodeo. I paid the PRCA 500 bucks for my card knowing that Houston might be the only rodeo I enter in 2019.
After that, I said, Man, I gotta get to work! But, for the first time in nearly thirty years, I didn’t have a rope horse to compete on. The last time I made the National Finals was in 2012 on a mare called Jewles, but she was now twenty-one and over in Louisiana roping breakaway with a friend’s daughter. I tried my friend Mark Atkinson’s seven-year-old mare. She was coming along good. I bought some calves and started practicing as much as I could outside of work. At the last minute, I decided to switch horses. I went with a mare that I matched Cody Ohl on in 2015. I rode her in the first three rounds. She worked pretty good but was getting weaker on the end of the rope the whole time. Then I called Justin Maass, who had a horse named El Gato that belonged to Bart Hutton.
“Is there a chance I can ride that horse at Rodeo Houston?” I asked.
“Yeah, when are you up?”
I drove to Justin’s place on Wednesday morning and ran three calves on El Gato. He felt good. “He ain’t gonna get quick or nothing, is he?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “I’ll see you down there tonight.”
I returned home, showered and drove over to NRG Stadium.
I had a pretty good calf and probably should have gotten out of my group that night, but I missed the barrier by too much. It was no fault of the horse. I was holding the reins. It was in my hands to go.
On Friday, I came back for the wild card round and drew a calf that weighed frickin’ 285 pounds. I spun her around, and she came up the rope at me and half-ass got by me. I mean, all I had to be was 9.8 to make the finals, but 9.8 is fast when you’re roping 280-pounders.
Deep down, I knew winning Rodeo Houston wasn’t going to be easy. And even if I did win that $50,000, I wasn’t going to take off rodeoing. My wife and I already discussed that. Honestly, it didn’t make sense to stop working.
I’ve never been an emotional guy. I’ve always had a game face. Whenever I backed into the box in my heyday, everybody who entered was my enemy. I’m not saying this approach works for everybody. And I don’t know that it works at all today because of how the competition is and how the world is and how thin-skinned everybody is. But when I backed in there, it was me against everybody. That was my mentality.
It kept me focused. There was always a sense of urgency. If I went to a rodeo and didn’t win something, I was like, Aw, hell no. I screwed up right there. I missed a golden opportunity. I went home and worked at it, man.
I used to have a saying, and it pissed a lot of people off. I would say, In order to get a gold buckle, you have to come through Hockley, Texas. That’s just the way it was.
No, I’ve never been an emotional guy, but hearing Boyd Polhamus telling the crowd at Houston that this was my last rodeo brought up some feelings. One of them was relief. Rodeo is a lot different from other sports. People retire from football. They retire from basketball. When a guy says he’s done, he’s done. Look at Kobe Bryant. You haven’t heard much from him since he retired, have you? It’s different when it comes to rodeo. You never ever really stop roping. I’m just not in competition anymore. Honestly speaking, I needed a final chapter. I could care less about a pity party for me leaving rodeo. That’s just not in my DNA. But I’m at peace now that I finally put a bow on it.
After that last calf, I knew I did my part. I pretty much left it all out in the arena. I have nothing left to prove. My career has been unbelievable. I’ve won every major rodeo—some of them three or four times—and damn near every big jackpot they have. I’ve just won everything. I’ve had amazing sponsors. CINCH signed me in 1996, and they’ve stuck by me all these years. That speaks volumes.
As a kid, I never imagined having as much success as I’ve had over the last 25 years. The only thing that I regret about my career is that it went by too fast. But, hey, there’s nothing you can do to change that. Time doesn’t stand still for anybody.
I have no regrets about what I’ve done in my life as far as the sport of rodeo goes. I’ve made thousands upon thousands of friends. I’ve made a few enemies, too. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had one of the best careers that a guy could ever dream of. It’s been unbelievable to be an eight-time world champion, to be able to provide for my family. Hell, everything I have is paid for except for a vehicle or two. My girls are in private school. And I got it all from roping. I came from having nothing. When I look out at my backyard, I think, I paid for all this stuff with my right hand. That means the world to me.