City slickers venturing into New York's Central Park this Thursday through Sunday might be surprised to see their urban oasis overrun by an exotic contingent. Four denim-clad cowfolks from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association will be in the Big Apple as part of a push to broaden their sport's appeal among Americans who aren't white males living west of the Mississippi.
One of the most conspicuous embodiments of rodeo's changing face is reigning champ Fred Whitfield. Last year Whitfield, 32, became the first black rider to win the world title in the prestigious all-around division. With 1999 earnings of $217, 819, he pushed his 10-year career total to more than $1.3 million. Also on Whitfield's belt are four championship gold buckles in calf roping, a skill he has been developing since he and his brother, Anthony, inspired by a rodeo fan from their neighborhood, fashioned lassos out of vacuum-cleaner cords and junkyard scraps while growing up in the Houston suburb of Cypress.
"People in my hometown were always wondering why I wasn't playing basketball or football," says Whitfield, who stands 6'2" and weighs 210 without his boots or Stetson. "In the early years of my career people wondered where they hell I came from." Although he says he's still snubbed by a few "no-good rednecks" on the rodeo circuit, Whitfield has become an inspiration to fans and future cowboys of color across the nation. "I get recognized all the time now," he says. "One lady wearing a FRED WHITFIELD T-shirt ran up to me at the national finals last year and just couldn't stop crying. 'Don't worry,' I told her. 'I'm not going anywhere.' "