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Cowboy From Watts Rides Tall in Saddle : Charles Sampson Has Overcome Injuries and Diminutive Size to Reach the Top

Times Staff Writer

When Charles Sampson won the world rodeo bull-riding championship in 1982, he became the first black man to win such a title. It was quite a feat, considering that he grew up in the Watts section of South-Central Los Angeles, which is certainly not noted as a jumping-off place for a career in professional rodeo.

Sampson, in seventh place on the circuit this year, is currently competing not far from the old neighborhood, riding in the Great Western Savings Rodeo at the Forum. It began Friday night and will run through Sunday. Tonight’s events will start at 7:30, Sunday’s at 2 p.m.

Despite his non-rodeo background and his diminutive size--he stands 5-4 and weighs only 128--the talented Sampson has become a respected veteran of his sport.

He has also paid the price exacted of bull riders, often riding two bulls a day--they can weigh as much as a ton--and dealing with the ever-present possibility of serious injury. Sampson was nearly killed in 1983 and has built up a long history of injuries in the last 10 years.

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In 1976, just a few weeks before graduation at Locke High School, Sampson was thrown by a bull, which then stepped on his right thigh, snapping the thighbone.

It took him two years to recover enough to gain full membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. Then, in 1980, another bull trampled him, splitting his breastbone and pushing a rib into his lung. But he recovered again and in 1982, won a record $91,402 to go along with his championship.

There are more than 900 bull riders on the circuit, which makes winning the title especially difficult. Still, veteran Don Gay has won the bull riding title an unprecedented eight times, and, in the days before he was making beer commercials, Jim Shoulders won 16 rodeo world titles, seven for bull riding.

It was naturally harder for Sampson to reach the level attained by riders brought up on bulls and horses.

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“Donny had all things going for him,” Sampson said. “He had Jim Shoulders teaching him, his father was a stock contractor, they owned all kinds of horses. It was natural for him to become world champion. For me, all I had was a dream.”

Sampson is 28 now, and living with his wife, Marilyn, and 21-month-old son, Lawrence Charles, at his 20-acre ranch in Arizona. Going into the Forum rodeo he had won $20,873. A championship is determined by how much a rider wins in the 11-month, 100-rodeo season, and riders get a point for every dollar earned. Tuff Hedeman of El Paso, Tex., was first at $40,884.

But Sampson thinks that he has his best chance this year to regain the world championship.

“I’m really tryin’ to work my way back up to the championship and right now the season is just gettin’ under way,” he said.

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“Ever since the championship year, it’s been kinda up and down. I’ve never been able to overcome the injuries enough to put me back in contention.”

In 1983, he was critically injured at the Presidential Command Performance rodeo in Washington, D.C., suffering a fractured skull and a crushed cheek. Even so, he managed to earn enough to finish sixth that year. In 1984 he narrowly missed winning his second title, finishing behind Gay. In 1985 he was gored in the side and rammed by the bull before he could be rescued. He still earned enough to finish fourth.

Just this month, in Santa Maria, Sampson suffered another head injury after a fantastic ride, forcing him to miss two subsequent rodeos.

“At the Santa Maria rodeo, I rode my bull and made a really good ride and scored 88 points,” he said.

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“But what most people don’t know is that the hard part is gettin’ off. I went to get off the bull after a successful ride and my hand got stuck in the rope, and that bull just literally beat me up. He knocked me unconscious and tore some ligaments in my knee and I was out of competition for three weeks.”

Bobby Del Vecchio, a 15-year bull riding veteran with a background similar to Sampson’s--he grew up in the Bronx and left to become a cowboy--said that Sampson has taken a few too many beatings, which may hurt his chances in the long run.

“Charley’s been jerked around quite a bit more than the rest of us,” he said. “His doctor told him he should be more careful (because of the head injuries), which kinda puts a burden on him because you have to be goin’ for it all the time.”

Asked if Sampson’s wild riding style had anything to do with his taking excessive beatings, Del Vecchio replied: “It’s definitely the way he rides.”

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Missing a rodeo now and then is common, however. All riders are unable to perform at some point during the season.

“You have to be pretty lucky to go through the year without being injured,” said veteran bull rider Wacey Cathey, currently fifth in the standings. “It’s part of the game.”

Still, Sampson hates to miss rodeos because it decreases his chances.

“My traveling partner, Ted Nuce, went up (to Canada) and he really did good,” Sampson said.

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Nuce, last year’s champion, is third in the standings this year and Sampson figures him as the man to beat this year.

“If I don’t get my stuff in gear, he’s gonna beat me for the championship because he’s riding better than I’ve ever seen him ride. . .like a real champion,” Sampson said. Nuce is also competing at the Forum.

While growing up, Sampson had little trouble deciding to leave home for the life of a cowboy. He longed to get out of the ghetto.

He saw his avenue of escape not long after riding his first pony while in the Cub Scouts at age 11. He soon began hanging around and cleaning the stables across town, where he also rode a steer for the first time. His bull riding days were close at hand.

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And since, as Sampson put it: “No police were bringing me home at night,” his mother didn’t mind.

At 13, Sampson had his first encounter with a Brahma bull, which is much bigger and meaner than any steer.

“A bunch of the guys were going to Oklahoma to enter an open rodeo and I wanted to go,” he recalled.

After crying to his mother to let him go, she reluctantly said yes and Sampson was on his way.

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“My buddies said they would pay my entry fee if I wanted to ride a bull. At first I said, ‘I don’t know,’ but they paid it and talked me into it. I had drawn bull 102 and went to look for it.

“When I passed by some of the smaller bulls I wished they were mine. Then I saw this big bull. I mean he was layin’ down, chewin’ hay. His horns looked like they were five feet long. I saw the number on his side and couldn’t believe it.

“He was the biggest thing in there, with the highest horns. I was tryin’ to chicken out, but my buddies wouldn’t let me. They talked me into ridin’ him.

“He comes to chute, so I was standin’ on the back of the chute, and the owner of the bull, he came over and said, ‘Get down from there son, you’re goin’ to get hurt.’

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“I said, ‘Well sir, this is the bull that they drew for me.’

“He yelled: ‘Oh no, I can’t believe it, where are your parents and who in the world talked you into riding this bull as little as you are?’ ”

Sampson went through with the ride, what there was of it.

“When the gate opened, it was like a trampoline,” he said. “The bull took two jumps and I went flyin’ through the air. Two jumps and I was gone.”

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But not for long. Shortly after that, Sampson met Myrtis Dightman, another black bull rider. Dightman qualified for the national finals--only the top 15 go to the national finals--seven times in the 1960s.

“He was probably the guy that opened my eyes to really wanting to be a travelin’ cowboy,” Sampson said.

“Like Myrtis, I wanted to go to the national finals, and once I went to the national finals in ’81, I said, ‘I want to be champion, like Donny Gay.’ ”

Sampson got his foot in the door with few racial problems.

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“Charlie always got along well with people,” said Cathey, who has been riding bulls since 1973.

“He stood out at first because he was one of the only blacks in the sport, but he was really good.”

Others in the sport admired Sampson from the beginning because of his skill.

“He rode good and that’s the important thing if you’re going to make it,” Del Vecchio said. “Nobody showed any animosity or prejudice, nothing like that.”

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And Sampson, the tough little cowboy from Watts, with career earnings in the neighborhood of $365,000, wouldn’t change life styles again for anything.

“This is what I’m all about,” he said.


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