SURVIVING THE BULL

You always remember your first time. For Charles Sampson, it happened in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, in 1972, when he was fourteen.

"That one should be a good ride," the owner said to no one in particular, and Charles--they called him Pee Wee back then--clambered up on the fence for a better look.

"Git down offa there, kid," the man said, "`fore ya git hurt."
Pee Wee looked him in the eye. "That's my bull," he said.
So it was. The bull was named--well, he was named Number 102--and he was 1,500 pounds of muscle, bone and ripsnorting bad temper. "A black bull with a white face," Charles remembers, "and some humongous horns."

The kid's baptism of fire didn't last long. The animal "took two jumps out of the chutes and I--how do you say this?--I hit the ejector button." For his part, Number 102 might as well have been swatting a gnat. At age fourteen, Charles Sampson stood five feet tall and weighed 98 pounds. He looked even smaller when he hit the deck.

But ten years later, that same kid would win the national bull-riding championship. And he would be the first black cowboy to do it.

"There's danger in every sport, and all sports have their skills," Sampson said the other day. "But in this there are no timeouts, there's no ref, and there's no brakes to put on. You get hung up, that bull's not gonna stop."

Charles Sampson is drinking coffee in a booth at the Village Inn, and if you look past the cup you can see the times the bull didn't stop. A pair of deep, crooked scars intersect over the bridge of the nose, and his upper lip is decorated with three or four nasty little hooks. Sampson's forehead has an odd, unnatural cant to it, and his left ear--his left ear is a paper-thin flap, something Dr. Frankenstein might have pasted onto the side of his monster's head in a spare moment down at the lab.

But Sampson's face is not his entire career. There are battle scars you can't see, too. In his twenty-year professional bull-riding career (he retired early this year) he broke his right leg four times, but it's the left one that has seventeen pins and two metal plates holding it together. In Sitney, Iowa, in 1978, a bull crushed his sternum, punctured one of his lungs and broke two of his ribs. On September 23, 1983, while performing in Landover, Maryland, for another devoted cowpoke, then-President Ronald Reagan, a bull named Kiss Me kissed Sampson but good--shattering his face with his hooves.

"Afterwards, everybody else went to the White House lawn," Sampson explains with a grin. "I went to the intensive care unit for eight days."

His busted left wrist (a souvenir of Calgary, 1987) still aches, the brutally torn ligaments in his knee (Ellensburg, Washington, 1990) give him trouble, and his ongoing medical bills would floor Hillary Clinton.

Still, Charlie Sampson wouldn't change a thing about his life.
"I didn't know I was gonna be a bull-rider. I'm from Watts, that surprise you? I wasn't big enough to play basketball, or fast enough for football. But I came to love this. Once I developed an attitude, and strength. Once I got belief, and the ability to react in split seconds. You can't outmuscle the bull, but deep down I knew I could conquer that animal."

In the beginning, his mother took little Charlie to a broken-down carnival in Gardena, where he paid a quarter to ride a pony. It wasn't long until he was mucking stalls in exchange for more pony rides and learning the rudiments of calf-roping from local hands. At twelve he rode a steer for the first time, and someone took a snapshot of it.

A year later he got the chance to show that picture off to the man who would change his life--Myrtis Dightman of Houston, Texas.

Myrtis Dightman is, simply put, the Jackie Robinson of rodeo. He toured the circuit at a time when the sneers and the catcalls rained down from the stands, and when the judges looked the other way every time he put in a great ride on a great bull. It was a time--the mid-Sixties--when a gate man in Mississippi wouldn't let Dightman into the arena because "they ain't no niggers in rodeo." Myrtis won that one, though--after he finally gained entry, after the crowd had gone home. He rode all alone, before none but the judges.

When thirteen-year-old Charlie Sampson proudly showed him the snapshot, the older man looked at it, considered for awhile, and said: "It won't be easy."

It wasn't. Sampson survived a bout with rheumatic fever, then joined the amateur circuit at fourteen. By 1976, he'd busted his right leg for the first time, finished high school and read all the books on bull-riding. He took inspiration not only from Dightman, but from the great Donny Gay. After a couple of years of college in Arizona, he turned pro in 1978. He was eighteen years old, and he was small (5-4, 128 pounds), even in a sport that favors small, lean, tough-minded men.

Charlie's first years on the circuit were tough--the long car trips between rodeos and the constant injuries got him down. He missed thirteen weeks of his rookie year after the stomping in Iowa, and a broken femur cancelled his 1980 season altogether. But in 1981 he vowed to stay injury-free, and for the first time he qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City.

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