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.
That set the stage for one of the most extraordinary seasons in rodeo history.
In 1982, Charlie Sampson rode in more than 150 rodeos, and he won the bull-riding event at 50 or 60 of them. "Bulls that wouldn't buck for other cowboys bucked for me," he remembers. "I was just on fire." Sampson and his traveling partner, rookie Ted Nuce, put 120,000 miles on Charlie's Olds 98 that year, visiting every place from Benkelman, Nebraska, and Denver to Showtow, Montana, and the Calgary Stampede. The night they checked into the only hotel in Shaunason, Saskatchewan, they were shown to a dim room containing one bed and a window opening covered with cardboard. "When I sat on the bed," Sampson remembers, "a big puff of dust came out of the mattress. But hey, you get by."
As it turned out, the ten-hour drives and the broken bones and the cold-water hotel rooms were all worth it. At the National Finals of 1982, Charles Sampson won the bull-riding championship. He would never win another (he finished second to Gay in 1984), but this moment meant everything.
"I felt that I had accomplished something beyond my imagination," he says. "I had done it. The first black world champion. I felt like a great burden had been lifted from me."
He wasn't the only one. In Oklahoma City that glorious year, the man who pulled the 24-year-old cowboy's rope tight on his last bull was none other than Myrtis Dightman, Sampson's inspiration.
When it was all over, when Charlie had the silver buckle and had won just about $91,000 in prize money for his championship season, Dightman told him: "I never won it, but I didn't have to. You won it for me."
At that moment all Sampson could think about was a boy showing a man a snapshot of himself perched on a steer.
On and off, bad luck then hunted Charlie Sampson. In 1983 he was almost killed in the Landover trampling, and in `88 he got his ear torn off at Reno. Even Longhorn, Charlie's docile practice bull at home in Casa Grande, Arizona, managed to fall on his foot. Then came the broken wrist. The torn-up knee. The shattered leg. And when he learned, one day in the summer of 1989, that his old friend and fellow cowboy Lane Frost had just been killed in the arena at Cheyenne, he went outside, got on his horse and cried as he rode the range.
By 1993, when he walked into, say, Chili's, in Wichita Falls, Texas, people still looked up from their plates and whispered: "I think that's Charles Sampson." But he was wrapped up like a mummy for every ride, nailed together with pins and plates and plastic surgery...and everything hurt.
You always remember your last one, too. In Pocatello, last March, Charlie drew a bull named Oh Crazy 7. "He drilled me, that sorry sucker. One-jumped me and bucked me off on my head. I waved my hat in the air for the last time, and that was it."
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Sampson now does promotion for the Bull Riders Only tour, which made its final stop of the year in Denver over the weekend, and he strives for rodeo cowboys to make a decent living at last. And sometimes, broken but unbowed at 37, he thinks to himself that Calgary's coming up, or Cheyenne, or even Shaunason--and that he must be ready.
In the end, he comes to his senses. It's over now, and Charlie Sampson is left with his championship buckle and his medical bills.
"It was always an easy way to make a living," he reflects, with a wry smile. "I only worked eight seconds at a time. And I never broke my nose.