Sampson, Charles 1957–
Charles Sampson 1957–
Breaking new ground in the rough-and-tumble world of bull riding, Charles Sampson became the first African American to win a championship in his event in professional rodeo. He set a record for earnings in bull riding in 1982 when he became one of the best-known cowboys on the roping-and-riding circuit. Sampson is one of only two African American cowboys to have been inducted in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, along with steer wrestler Bill Pickett. Sampson rode a bull “with fearless tenacity and a unique flair,” according to Western Horseman. “With his charismatic personality, cheerfulness, and exceptional talent, Sampson gave rodeo a pattern of superstardom for others to follow,” added the magazine.
Myrtis Dightman, who was the leading money winner among African Americans as a bull rider during the 1960s, told the Los Ange/es Times in 1983, “Charley’s [Sampson’s] got his confidence up; he knows he’s a damn good bull rider and he’s never slacked off.” In an event in which only one of ten contestants ends up winning prize money and few riders remain on the circuit after age 30, Sampson managed to remain a top contender for well over a decade. He was still ranked fourteenth as a bull rider by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) after 1993, when he was 36 years old.
Standing only five feet four inches and weighing just 134 pounds, Sampson was one of the smallest members of the PRCA and was sometimes referred to by rodeo announcers as “Mighty Mite.” He preferred not to discuss the significance of being one of the few African Americans on the rodeo circuit. “I want to answer their [media] questions, but they all the time emphasize racism, saying, Tell us about Watts, about the ghetto,’” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1983. “Hell, I’m no ghetto child, I’m a cowboy.”Los Angeles Times staff writer Ronald B. Taylor added, “It is obvious Sampson no longer thinks of himself as a black trying to enter an all-white world but as a cowboy among cowboys.”
On one of the few occasions when he did discuss the color issue in his profession, Sampson told the New York Times, “I haven’t encountered discrimination as much as ignorance. Some people still don’t realize that something like a quarter of all the cowboys back in the old West were black.” Racial prejudice, however, may have held Sampson back earlier in his career. In the Los Angeles Times,1981 world champion bull rider Don Gay said, “When Charley [Sampson] started, he wasn’t getting the points he should have been scoring on his bulls. He had to prove himself.” By 1983, only six PRCA cowboys were black, and only Sampson was performing on a national level.
Although downplaying the race issue in his own career, Sampson has admitted that he saw the rodeo as a way to “ride” out of the ghetto. He also has spoken often to minority youngsters in inner city schools, telling them
Born Charles Sampson, July 2, 1957, in Los Angeles, CA; son of a paint contractor and a housewife; married to Marilyn Sampson; children: Laurence Charles, Daniel. Education: Attended Central Arizona College.
Rode his first bull at age 12; won his first rodeo at age 17; received rodeo scholarship to Central Arizona College; joined Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, 1977; became World Champion bull rider, 1982; performed in 1983 Presidential Command Performance Rodeo; was hired by Timex to promote the durability of their watches; signed endorsement contract with Wrangler jeans; appeared ten times in National Finals Rodeo; earned more than $900,000 in prize money as bull rider during his 17-year career.
Selected awards: World Champion bull rider, 1982; Sierra Circuit bull riding champion, 1984; Turquoise Circuit bull riding champion, 1985-86; Copenhagen/Skoal bull riding champion, 1992; Calgary Stampede $50,000 bonus round bull riding champion; two-time bull riding champion at Pendleton (OR) Round-Up; two-time Grand National Rodeo (Cow Palace) bull riding champion; two-time bull riding champion at California Rodeo (Salinas); two-time winner of Del Rio bull-riding buckle; Rodeo Superstars Championship; named to Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame, 1996.
Addresses: Home—Aurora, CO.
that positive thinking, goal setting, and hard work can help them achieve success in their lives.
Sampson grew up with 12 brothers and sisters in the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles, a place where gang wars were commonplace on the streets and race riots flared in the 1960s. He managed to avoid getting caught up in the violence as a boy. After his family moved to Gardenia, California, he developed an early interest in horses when his mother took him for a pony ride around a ring at age ten. His move to bull riding stemmed from a Boy Scout trip he took the next year to a riding stable. “Sampson liked the horses and cowboys so well that he kept coming back,” said Western Horseman. “The cowboys there taught him to team rope, and at age 12 he climbed aboard his first bucking steer.”
Small for his age as he approached adolescence, Sampson found that he was out of his league in basketball or football, and he began developing his horse-riding talent. He accepted a job shoveling out stalls at a horse stable so that he could pay for roping lessons and ride on full-grown horses. The other stable hands there used to call him Pee Wee because of his small stature. Occasionally the stable was visited by Dightman, who gave young Sampson some lessons and other advice. “I remember showing him some photos of me riding steers,” said Sampson according to Western Horseman. “And he said, ‘You look pretty good, but I would stay in school and get an education.’” Sampson later took the advice and attended Central Arizona State College, on a rodeo scholarship, before seeking his fame in the PRCA.
When Sampson was 13, some of his cowboy instructors brought him to Oklahoma where he had his first opportunity to ride bulls in rodeos. Two years later he picked up his first earnings as a bull rider—the modest sum of $164—in a rodeo in El Cajon, California. Sampson continued to advance his talent until he had a serious mishap in 1976, when a bull that had thrown him stepped on his thigh and broke his femur. After a two-year recovery period, he got back into action and won enough money on the circuit to qualify for full membership in the PRCA. He also attended some events in the International Professional Rodeo Association during his early bull riding days. His career was derailed once more when he broke the same leg in 1979, which was followed by a split sternum after a bull stomped on him in 1980.
Sampson’s left calf has taken an especially bad beating over the years, and is now wired together by screws, 17 pins, and two metal plates. Recounting his various injuries as a bull rider in the New York Times Magazine, Sampson noted, “In 1983, a bull jerked me down and cracked my skull—I broke every bone in my face except my nose. 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 has a prosthesis for the missing ear.
Overcoming his various mishaps, in 1981 Sampson took in $49,318 in earnings, which placed him fourth on the yearly list. He hit his professional peak the next
year, when he prevented Gay from winning his unprecedented eighteenth consecutive world title in bull riding. Sampson earned top honors as the 1982 World Champion Bull rider, and his name was inscribed in the PRCA’s Hall of Champions. “I never dreamed about being champion,” he admitted to the Los Angeles Times. With his success continuing, Sampson became the top money winner on the bull riding circuit in the 1980s.
“You may be afraid, but the bull can’t know you’re afraid.”
During the prime of his career, Sampson often rode 30 to 35 bulls a month during the summer season. His performance schedule kept him on the road over 300 days a year. In one five-day period in 1983 he competed in eight different rodeos spanning Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon. “That was probably the worst week I’ve ever had,” he said in the Los Angeles Times, noting that he had been thrown to the ground by five bulls. This low point almost caused Sampson to give up his career, but his traveling partner and fellow bull rider Ted Nuce convinced him to stick with it.
Some bull riders have criticized Sampson’s style, saying he put on an act to make bulls look tougher than they were, earning riders higher scores. Former top bull and bareback rider Jim Shoulders told the Los Angeles Times that “he [Sampson] rides on his strength, flopping and popping around a lot. He uses body motion to make the bull look rank.” Sampson did not deny these allegations. “Well, if a bull is clickey Ibucking good], and I’m feeling comfortable I might class him up, use some body English to make him look harder to ride,” he admitted in the same article.
Sampson’s technique did not make his bull riding any safer. As Tuff Hedeman, the 1991 bull riding champion, told the New York Times, “Charlie rides out over the bull a lot. Lots of times, the bull will hit Charlie in the face. Charlie has probably been hit in the head more times than any bull rider.” Sampson had a particularly rough outing at the 1983 Presidential Command Performance in front of President Ronald Reagan, when his face was slammed into a bull’s skull. During his recovery he received phone calls from the president, and his fame grew dramatically due to the high profile of the event. “After that,” Sampson said of the event in Western Horseman, “people quit referring to me as the first black cowboy to win a world title and started referring to me as the world champion who got injured.”
After his career hit a lull, Sampson staged somewhat of a comeback in February of 1993 at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, where he rode in front of 60,000 people at the Houston Astrodome. At that time he was also running the second year of a barnstorming bull-rider tour that gave winners up to four times the standard $5,000 to $10,000 awarded in most events on the PRCA circuit. Also around that time, Sampson began negotiating with the ESPN cable station on television to produce a show devoted entirely to bull riding.
After 17 years as a PRCA bull rider, which included ten appearances in the National Finals Rodeo, Sampson decided to retire following the completion of in 1994 Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Pocatello, Idaho. “I feel like it’s time,” he told Western Horseman. “Rodeo has been very good to me, but you’ve got to let it go someday.”
Sampson earned more than $900,000 in his career, including $60,000 in 1992. Additional earnings have been chalked up by his appearances in commercials for Timex watches that showed how the watches still kept working after going for a bull ride. He has also managed a bull-riding clinic where amateurs can live out their cowboy fantasies, and currently promotes Bull Riders Only professional bull riding competitions. “Relaxing is the key,” Sampson told the New York Times about how to succeed as a bull rider. “And you have to make sure you’re not afraid. You may be afraid, but the bull can’t know you’re afraid.”
Afro-American Newspaper, June 5, 1982, p. 32.
California, April 1989, p. 12.
Ebony, March 1985, p. 146.
Los Angeles Times, January 5, 1983, Part III, p. 9.
New York Times, April 29, 1993, pp. C1, C8.
New York Times Magazine, April 12, 1992, pp. 34, 36, 53, 56-58, 61.
People, October 24, 1983, p. 51.
Texas Monthly, November 1993, p. 138.
Western Horseman, May 1994, p. 138; June 1996, pp. 140-141.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from publicity materials of the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame, Colorado Springs, CO.
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