The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo crowd at the Thomas &Mack Center during Round 5 tonight will look a bit different than usual.
That’s because they all will look very similar, as the rodeo community celebrates its No. 1 fundraising effort with Tough Enough To Wear Pink Night at the $6.25 million rodeo. For the ninth consecutive year, the world’s premier rodeo will be awash in a sea of pink as fans, staff and contestants congregate for the special night and pay tribute to those who have been affected by the disease.
Nine years ago, breast cancer survivor Terry Wheatley teamed with Karl Stressman — now the PRCA commissioner, then the director of special events for Wrangler — to help Wrangler NFR contestants dress in pink in honor of breast cancer awareness. What was expected to be a subtle homage turned into a rodeo-wide overture that first night, an experience Wheatley remembers well.
“That first night, I’m not sure a lot of people knew what it was about,” she said. “We thought maybe 25 percent of the guys would wear the pink shirts, and everybody ended up having something pink on their bodies.”
The cause is near and dear to Wheatley’s heart. Not only is she a survivor, but she lost her grandmother to the disease, her mother underwent a double mastectomy before the age of 40, and her daughter had undergone two surgical biopsies by the age of 20.
Wheatley was a senior executive at a wine company that sponsored the Wrangler NFR, and her husband, Jim, had been a six-time Finals team roping qualifier. Her son, Wade, was also a multiple-time Wrangler NFR team roping participant, so Wheatley felt the urge to create the movement within the rodeo community.
Given that the diabolical disease unfortunately touches so many people, nearly everyone in the rodeo world had some experience with it. That fact helped the TETWP program mushroom in popularity virtually overnight.
“Everybody had a story, and everybody had been touched in a different way,” Wheatley said. “I think that’s what drew the cowboys to it. These are big, tough guys all wearing pink, but they’re also family men, and family comes first in the rodeo world.”
Four-time Wrangler NFR bareback rider Clint Cannon’s family had its own breast cancer story.
“My grandma (Billy White) has been affected,” Cannon said. “She had to have surgery to get the cancer removed, and any type of (disease) touches everybody.”
The year after TETWP’s inception, roughly 50 PRCA rodeos participated in the fundraising program.
That number continued to grow as the effort gained momentum, and today about 300 of the association’s 600 rodeos have a TETWP program associated with their events.
“Seventy-seven percent of our fans and contestants gave to a charitable organization last year,” Stressman said. “That’s phenomenal, and that’s a big deal. It speaks volumes to what rodeo is really all about.”
Wheatley and the TETWP organization are expected to announce an updated donation total for the program during Monday night’s performance of somewhere between $15 and $20 million. What makes that figure even more impressive is the reality that the majority of the donations have been small contributions.
“The great thing about Tough Enough To Wear Pink is it’s all been $5 or $10 donations,” Stressman said. “It just continues to grow, and it dumbfounds me that the growth has been so significant. I’m awfully proud to have my name associated with it.
“It’s a great deal.”
The entire rodeo community has united to support the worthy cause from top to bottom.
“I think the Tough Enough To Wear Pink program is an awesome program,” said five-time Wrangler NFR bullfighter Dusty Tuckness, who won his fourth consecutive PRCA Bullfighter of the Year award on Wednesday night. “It’s a way that rodeo can give back, and not just rodeo in general, but each individual rodeo committee. They have all their different foundations and support groups to benefit breast cancer awareness, and it goes to a great cause.”
Wheatley has been impressed by the way the TETWP program has spider-webbed its way through each rodeo’s community.
“The cowboys started it, the rodeo communities embraced it, the fans supported it, and they see their money at work, so it comes all the way back around,” she said. “There are stories upon stories out there about what people are doing with their funds, and there are so many heartwarming stories. They have embraced it as a fundraising tool to use in their local communities to raise funds for whatever charities or breast cancer groups are important to them.
“It gets stronger every year.”
I asked Wheatley if she was surprised by the way the program has ballooned in popularity and reach in its nine years.
“I’m surprised, but not surprised, when you see the enthusiasm when these rodeo committees are calling in and giving their totals for the year and hear how proud they are of what they’re doing,” she said. “I’m not surprised, I’m just proud.”
Years ago, some people might have thought it odd to see a professional athlete — especially a male athlete — wearing pink. But fast-forward to today, and other professional sports organizations such as the NFL routinely encourage their athletes to wear pink during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
“I believe the cowboys did it first,” Wheatley said.
Cannon and his peers don’t worry one bit about donning pink on a regular basis.
“You see a cowboy wearing pink and riding (a bucking horse or bull), you can’t get tougher than that,” he said.
The rodeo world often is described as one big family, and TETWP illustrates that in a big way.
“It’s opened another avenue for people who might not have been involved in rodeo to see that cowboys really do care about people and want to help,” Tuckness said. “Any way we can show support, that’s really how cowboys are. It means a lot to a lot of people.
“It just goes to show the character of the cowboys we’ve got going down the road today.”
A freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., Neal Reid spent six years as editor of the ProRodeo Sports News. His writing has appeared in USA Today, Newsday, Western Horseman, American Cowboy and the Denver Post, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @NealReid21.