Up to the challenge: Whitaker pursues sixth Linderman Award
Five. This is the number of Linderman Awards that Chambers, Neb., cowboy Kyle Whitaker has won in his career. It’s one more than anyone else, including notables of the sport like Phil Lyne and Chip Whitaker – Kyle’s dad.
The award is presented every year to the cowboy who earns the most prize money competing in at least three events. A minimum of $1,000 must be earned in each event and money must be won in both a timed and roughstock event. The award was first given in 1966 and is named in honor of the great Bill Linderman, a multi-event champion who died in a plane crash near Salt Lake City in 1965.
“Growing up, I always placed this award on a pedestal,” remembers Whitaker. “They made a big deal of it when they announced my dad at rodeos, so it was always special to me.”
While the word “special” can be used to describe the feeling the award inspires, “grueling” may best describe the trail to winning it. As Whitaker explains, “It’s a little better than it used to be, but entering multiple events at different ends of the arena still isn’t easy. Depending on the draw, you can end up competing in the morning in the timed events and then in the performance that night or the next day in the roughstock. In the past you could be spread out over the course of five or six days at some of the bigger rodeos. It’s easier to schedule the way they set things up back-to-back sometimes now, but most don’t even try to enter three events due to the difficulty of it all.”
The difficulty in qualifying for the award is evident in the fact that since 1965 there have been two years when the award was unable to be presented because nobody qualified. As Kyle recalls, “In 1996, no one qualified for the award. I won my first in 1997 as the only person to qualify. After this I figured I’d win it every year. I won it again in 1998, then guys like Jesse Bail and Dan Erickson showed up and I wondered if I’d ever win it again.” Win it again Whitaker would, in 2003, 2005 and 2006.
Working multiple events requires more time than working just one. The result is an added degree of difficulty in winning the money necessary to qualify among the elite (top 15) in any event. Because of this, chasing the Linderman requires a different mindset.
Whitaker begins each year with two primary goals. First, qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in the events he competes – steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding and tie-down roping – and second, qualifying for the Linderman.
To achieve these goals, interim steps are necessary. As Whitaker explains, “I start out with plans to first make the circuit finals, then Pocatello (the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo), then Omaha (the Justin Boots Championship Rodeo).” Whitaker’s reasoning is that if he’s doing well enough to qualify for these rodeos, he will be in decent position to qualify for the NFR. “I set these goals the beginning of each year and evaluate my performance based on them, but on a daily basis I just make the best run or ride I can each time I’m up,” shares Kyle.
Success in a sport which requires, among other things, all-night drives, weeks away from home, and thousands of dollars in expenses requires a tremendous support structure. Kyle’s support comes from the family. “I’ve always had the support of my family,” says Whitaker. “My grandpa, Vern Whitaker, competed in the same events as Dad and I. He hauled me to youth events when Dad was on the road. At one of the last rodeos we went to together I won the all-around. That was special to me. Grandpa rode his last bronc at age 74. When I start feeling stiff, I remember that.” Kyle’s mom, Marilyn, and sister, Hope, have also supplied consistent support.
Whitaker’s biggest fans today are his wife, Halie, and daughters Jenae, age 6, and Aubree, age 2-1/2. Halie and the girls travel with him when they can and help out with practice sessions at home. Everybody chips in and helps according to Whitaker. “My dad hazes for me and Halie and the crew will run gates. It’s a team effort.” The busiest time for the family is when Kyle’s away. Whitaker recognizes this by saying, “I owe a lot to my wife. She takes care of the kids and the place while I’m gone. She puts up with a lot.”
With rodeo season in full swing, Whitaker is currently on the road trying to accomplish the goals set at the beginning of the year. With any luck, he will accomplish both. Regardless, he’s up to the challenge of competing for award number six.