A Talk with World Champion Bull-Rider Charles Sampson

Sampson and the unfortunate bull.

For retired bull rider Charles Sampson, eight seconds used to be an entire workweek – a brief fleeting moment, clinging frantically to sometimes an 1,800-pound raging bull, as he did at the Blue Bonnet Palace in Dallas. A match impossible to win. One you can’t lose.

The pen’s iron bars rattle with rage before the violent animal’s release, but Sampson comfortably, cautiously, finds his footing on the ever-moving harness on the bull’s back. Despite his muscular build, the five-foot-four, 130-pound bull-rider also called Pee Wee Sampson looks like a rag doll in the jaws of an angry dog.

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Sampson and the unfortunate bull.
Sampson and the unfortunate bull.

Sampson, more often than not, would land on his feet, triumphantly waving his hat in the air. “Bulls that wouldn’t buck for other cowboys bucked for me,” he remembers. “I was on fire.” He has a string of accolades to prove it. He became a World Champion bull-rider in 1982 — the first African-American to carry the title. He won the Sierra Bull Championship in 1984, was a two-time champion of the Grand National Rodeo and also a two-time winner of the George Paul Memorial in Del Rio. He was named to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1996.

He had his share of brushes with death. Perhaps his worst injuries happened at age 26. Performing for President Reagan in Landover, Maryland, a bull named Kiss Me landed its hooves in Sampson’s face and shattered his skull. After eight days in intensive care and three weeks of hospitalization, he was ready to ride again. “These animals are like racehorses now. Once they buck, they are done. Tell me them suckers ain’t fresh.”

Sampson proudly adds “I’ve never broken my nose” as he looks back on his almost 20-year long career, which ended with his 1994 retirement. “I broke my ankle, my leg, my sternum, my wrist. In ’88, I had an ear ripped off when a bull ran over me and his foot caught my hat” — he now wears a prosthetic left ear. “One-jumped me and bucked me off on my head.” More unfortunate souvenirs followed: he wrist was shattered while riding in Calgary in 1987, his left calf is held together with 17 different pins, screws and two metal plates, and his smile reveals a network of scars along his face, from times he didn’t land on his feet.

charlieRSZ_0Sampson was only one of a handful of black bull riders, a fact that many expected would overshadow his performance. “I haven’t encountered discrimination as much as ignorance,” he says. “Some people still don’t realize that something like a quarter of all the cowboys back in the old West were black.” When he attained his status as a world champion, he says, “I felt I had accomplished something beyond my imagination. The first black world champion. I felt like a great burden had been lifted from me.”

When he rode into stardom that day, pulling the ropes on the bull was Myrtis Dightman, the first black cowboy to compete at the National Finals Rodeo, who showed him the ropes when Sampson was a 12-year-old stable boy.

Despite his injuries, Sampson proudly holds onto his championship belt buckle as his likeness graces ads for Wrangler jeans. “We figured since their slogan was ‘Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,’ I’d be good for one of their ads,” he smiles. When not home on his Arizona ranch, he wishes his opportunities on today’s youth by going out on the lecture circuit to inner city schools and encouraging in the students the three things that helped him through his ride out of the ghetto: positive thinking, goal setting and hard work.