In 1982, Charlie Sampson became the first African American ever to win the World Bull Riding Championship.
Unlike most rodeo cowboys, Sampson didn’t grow up on a ranch listening to country music. He grew up in Watts, South Central LA, where one of his earliest memories was of National Guardsmen patrolling the streets during the riots of 1965.
Across from the park where he and his pals used to swim during the summers, there was a stable with ponies and a stationary steer where grownup cowboys used to practice roping. His curiosity piqued, Sampson went over and got himself hired to clean out the stables in exchange for pony rides. He also got one of the cowboys to show him how to rope that steer. Soon he was going with them to steer roping competitions to look after their horses.
After a roping event, the stable boys would ride the steers out of the arena. All except for Charlie, who was just way too scared. ‘If they had known how afraid I was, they’d have said I was chicken s–t,’ he says. His boss Tommy, however, was not taking no for an answer. ‘He told me either to get on a steer, or walk home.’ Charlie did as he was told, and just as he feared, the steer spun and threw him off.
Back at the stables, the cowboys built a bucking barrel and Charlie practiced on it until he could stay on. He graduated to live steers and it wasn’t long before he was riding competitively. ‘I got to be a pretty good steer rider,’ he says. ‘I’d ride for jackpot. Everybody’d throw three bucks into the pot, winner take all.’
In 1972, Charlie, now 15, was invited to go to Oklahoma with a team of ‘time event cowboys’ –steer wrestlers and calf ropers. It was in Tishomingo that he met veteran black cowboy Gene Smith.
‘Gene told me it was time to step my game up,’ Sampson says. ‘He thought I was ready to compete against full grown men. I’d never been on a bull before in my life. I was petrified.’
He entered anyway, drew #102, and went to the pen to check him out. ‘He was huge,’ he says. ‘Sixteen hundred pounds and I’m this little bitty kid, five two, 115 pounds. Nobody could believe I was the competitor.’
Sampson doesn’t remember much about the ride, except to say that the bull took two big leaps and sent him skyward. He landed on his feet and took off running.
Still, he’d done it. He’d been on a bull, and something about it appealed to him. He spent the rest of the summer doing non-competitive exhibition rides all over small town Oklahoma. ‘Everybody wanted to see little Peewee ride,’ he says. ‘I started liking it a lot better, feeling the energy and excitement from the crowds.’
He went back to California with a photograph of himself on a bull, which he proceeded to show everyone he met. ‘After awhile the guys in my stable got tired of me talkin’ smack,’ he says. ‘They bought me a rodeo card and entered me in a rodeo in El Cajon.’
It was only the 2nd time he’d ridden a bull competitively, and to everyone’s surprise, he took third place and won $165. The following week he went to Escondido and did it again, this time walking away with $200. He began entering every Southern California rodeo he could find. ‘I lost my fear,’ he says, ‘and I’d fallen in love with the sport.’
But, like every love affair, bull riding had its ups and downs. At a rodeo at Madison Square Garden during the summer of ‘74, Sampson got bucked off while one arm stayed tangled in the rope. The bull dragged him up and down the arena. ‘He ripped my chaps off,’ he says. ‘I didn’t break a leg, but I was pretty sore.’
Problem was, after that he kept making the same mistake. He’d get thrown, and instead of letting go, he’d hang on and get dragged. The error nearly cost him his career, not to mention his life. At a rodeo in Paris, California his senior year in high school, he again got ‘bucked off and hung up;’ only this time the bull stepped on his leg and snapped his femur. He graduated on crutches and spent the rest of the year recuperating.
Fortunately, Sampson had the good sense to…uh…take the bull by the horns. He went to a bull riding clinic with 1970 World Champion Gary Leffew, who ‘taught me some basic techniques, like how to let go of the rope when you get bucked off. Once I learned the technique, I developed my own style and got some confidence in myself. That’s when I really took off.’
He kept entering — and winning — bull riding contests all over the West. In 1982, the year he won the championship, he garnered $91,000 in prize money. His lifetime total winnings amount to well over $900,000.
Now retired, Sampson teaches rodeo skills to kids at Cactus Creek Ranch just north of Pueblo. He also travels extensively to raise money for the Boy Scouts, and the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of America.
‘I’m still living my life as a cowboy,’ he says. ‘It’s been a great lifestyle for me.’
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