Charles Sampson will not look back fondly on his first meeting with a bull named Kiss Me. The 1982 world champion bull rider came away from the encounter with a broken jaw and chin and a fracture in his forehead. (Ah, but you should have seen the bull.)
What made the experience that much more painful for Sampson was the fact that it took place in front of President Ronald Reagan and an audience of Congressmen at a command performance in Landover, Md. A week later the rodeo world’s only black champion was asked if it was embarrassing to fall off a bull in front of the Commander in Chief. “It was embarrassing to fall off period,” Sampson moaned from his hospital bed.
Sampson, 26, had little to be embarrassed about last year. He won a record $91,402 and became the first black to don the silver belt buckle that goes to the world champion. “I think how you make it, whether you’re black or white or yellow, depends on your talent and drive,” says Sampson. “In modern rodeo, being white won’t help you if you can’t ride and being black won’t hurt you if you can.”
Last month’s spill put an end to Sampson’s hopes of holding onto his title. He will miss this December’s finals in Oklahoma City, since his doctors have told him to stay out of the ring until the first of the year. “I feel kind of let down,” Sampson says, “but being as young as I am, I feel as if I still got my future ahead of me.”
What’s behind Sampson is a childhood spent in the Watts ghetto area of L.A. His mother is a housewife, his father a contract painter. The 11th of 13 children, Sampson climbed atop his first horse at 10, taking a 25-cent pony ride at a ramshackle neighborhood circus. “I was hooked after my first pony,” he recalls, “so I collected empty bottles in a gunnysack on my way to school and exchanged them for cash at a liquor store to finance my riding.”
A year later Sampson began to work for a nearby stable, where he met several veteran black cowboys who told him about rodeo life and taught him rope tricks. “Soon I was roping dogs and chickens—and other kids,” remembers Sampson. By 13, he’d ridden his first bull, despite weighing only 106 pounds to the bull’s 1,700. (He rides at 132 pounds now.) Sampson rode in regional amateur competitions and earned a rodeo scholarship to Central Arizona College in Coolidge. He dropped out before graduating to turn pro.
The life of a professional bull rider is a bumpy one. Sampson has no regular earnings, taking home cash only when he is in the top four. Injuries abound. In addition to the fractures he sustained last month, Sampson has, over the past six years, suffered knee damage, broken legs three times, split his sternum, punctured a lung, broken two fingers and been concussed.
To enter the bull riding contest at a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association rodeo, Sampson and his peers must fork over a $50 to $250 entry fee per event and then wait to see which of the bulls they will draw. To earn any points at all, the bull rider must stay on the animal for eight seconds, desperately holding on with one hand to a rope that has been looped around the beast’s belly. The exact number of points a rider racks up depends on whether the bull he has drawn is full of buck. Despite all that, Sampson believes the odds are with him. “I was born competitive,” he says, “and from the day I turned pro, it never occurred to me I wouldn’t end up on top of the heap. Otherwise, I’d be in another line of work.”
There are only a handful of blacks on the professional rodeo circuit. This, complains bachelor Sampson, means there are also very few black “buckle bunnies” hanging around the chutes. “So I’ve spent a couple of dollars in the joy houses of Winnemucca and Reno,” he confesses, adding hastily, “but that’s in the past.” Sampson now lives in Dallas with a “serious girlfriend.”
Before his fall last month, Sampson’s 1983 earnings were $36,902, and he was 12th in the standings for U.S. bull riders. He says he expects to come back from his latest injuries with “just a couple of scars” and win the 1984 title. But his bruised ego may take longer to heal. “Shucks,” he says, “I feel like a damn rookie again.”