The little man with a lot of ability knows how to set a goal—and reach it.
By RANDY WITTE, originally published in the April 1983 issue of Western Horseman.
Charles Sampson remembers the first bull he ever attempted to ride—or sort of remembers it, because part of the experience is a little hazy. He was 14 years old and in Tishomingo, Okla., where a small amateur rodeo was getting underway. Charles’s pals took it upon themselves to enter their 110-pound buddy in the bull riding, and Charles went along with the idea.
He was attempting to straddle the bull that had been drawn for him when the stock contractor asked him to move away from the chutes, explaining how children weren’t allowed in that area for their own safety. “No,” Charles said. “This is my bull. I’m supposed to ride him.” The man took a closer look at the youngster, who didn’t stand over five feet at the time, then shrugged and moved on. Charles got ready to ride.
The part he has trouble remembering is when the gate opened. He does recall staying with the bull for about two jumps, then leaping off and running back to the chute.”What’s the matter?” his pals chided from the safety of the fence. “Why didn’t you ride him?”
“Shucks,” said Charles, who really said shucks. “I don’t even remember nodding my head for the gate!”
That was in 1971. Eleven years later, at age 25, Charles 0. Sampson—the 11th of 13 children in the Sampson household who were raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles—was crowned PRCA world champion bull rider for 1982, with $91,402 in winnings for the season. The 5-foot, 4-inch, 132-pounder is further distinguished by being the first black world champion rodeo cowboy, although Charles places little emphasis on this aspect of his victory.
“I’m proud to wear the buckle; this was a personal goal,” he says. “But there have been many uncrowned champions through the years, black and white. I look at Myrtis Dightman, and to me he’s a champion—he finished as high as third for the title one year (1967), and he could just as easily have finished first if the right break had come his way.”
Myrtis, of course, is the highly respected black bull rider who was a stalwart of the National Finals throughout most of the ’60s, and into the ’70s. And he was someone special to Charles, even before the Tishomingo experience. Charles was ten years old when his cub scout den organized a field trip to a nearby riding stable in Los Angeles. He enjoyed the horses and started visiting regularly on his own. “I just hung around until they finally gave me a job,” he says.
He made friends with others his age, youngsters who were interested in horses and rodeo. Some of them had access to bucking steers, a natural prelude to bull riding, so Charles began riding steers several years before he climbed on that first bull. And it was during this time that Myrtis would stop by to visit with the young stable hands whenever he was rodeoing on the West Coast.
“I remember the first time I saw Myrtis,” said Charles. “Of course, I’d heard all about him, how he traveled all over the country, a full-time rodeo cowboy. And one day he showed up at the stable and I got to meet him. I was just like any kid—I talked his head off. And I ran into the tack room and grabbed a picture of myself, riding a steer. I showed it to Myrtis and said, ‘This is me! What do you think of it?'”
Myrtis studied the photograph. “That’s real fine,” he said. “That’s a heck of a good picture; you keep ridin’ those steers. Something even more important, though, is to get a good education. Be sure to stay in school. You’ll have time to ride all you want after you get an education.”
“I never forgot that,” Charles said.
Shortly before Charles was graduated from high school, a representative from Central Arizona College contacted him and asked if he would be interested in attending that school on a rodeo scholarship; Charles was also participating in team roping and saddle bronc riding at the time. He had been riding and winning in amateur rodeos and jackpots in California, and his rodeo talent had been noticed. Charles jumped at the chance—unfortunately, a bull stepped on him soon after, breaking his leg, and he wondered if the offer was still good.
It was. And he was graduated from the junior college two years later. At that time he was faced with all the realities of making his own way in the world. “‘What would I do?’ I wondered. Well, I was riding bulls pretty good, and still enjoyed rodeo more than ever. So I got my R.C.A. permit, filled it, and became a member.” He’s been on the rodeo trail ever since.
Everything went well for Charles that first full year in the pros, 1979, at least until the Sidney, Ia., rodeo in August. He was rated eighth in the standings at that point, and was counting on going to his first National Finals. But a bull at Sidney threw him and trampled him, crushing his sternum, breaking two ribs, and puncturing a lung. He was out of competition for 13 weeks, and finished around 20th in the standings.
“When 1980 came around I said, ‘To heck with these injuries—I’m going to set a goal to get through the season without getting hurt.’ And I did.”
Charles relies greatly on “the power of positive thinking,” as preached by the man who introduced this success formula to rodeo, 1970 bull riding champ Gary Leffew of Arroyo Grande, California. Years earlier, Gary had helped Charles with his riding, and with his thinking. With Gary’s help, Charles even learned to ride left-handed—he had started out riding with his right hand, but discovered his balance was better if he switched hands on the rope.
In 1981 he added to his goal: “I wanted to remain free of injuries, and I wanted to make it to the Finals.” He accomplished both; a $7,000 win at Houston, early in the year, launched him back in the standings, and he stayed there through the season, finishing fourth with $49,418. In 1982, his goal was “to stay healthy and work my way up to number one.”
Last year, he and another urban cowboy, the flamboyant Bobby Del Vecchio of the Bronx, N.Y., reserve champ for the past two seasons, traveled together extensively for the first half of the year. “We had a great time,” Charles says. “We were both winning, and that Bobby will keep a guy pumped up just being around him. He never lets down.”
Later on, Charles and Ted Nuce, the ’80 bull riding rookie from Manteca, Calif., merged travel plans, and Ted says it was Charles’s extremely positive approach to the game that inspired him to travel far and wide, riding and winning. Ted made it to his first Finals, and finished eighth in ’82 with nearly $50,000 in earnings.
Charles, of course, won it all last year. And he is modest enough to attribute part of his finish to the breaks of the game. “I was still leading, late in the season, but Bobby and Donnie (Gay) were still in contention. Then they got hurt; Bobby hurt his elbow real bad, and Donnie hurt his groin muscles again—and those guys were out for four or five weeks. That came at a time when I was really hot, really winning; I just extended my lead.”
Charles went to 148 rodeos last season, more than he’d ever gone to before. And he was pleased when his mother watched him ride, in person, for the first time at San Francisco—and again, with his girlfriend, at the National Finals. “My mother never wanted to watch me ride; the idea scared her, I guess. ‘If I’m sitting in the stands, I’ll just make you nervous,’ she’d say. I finally convinced her she wouldn’t make me any more nervous than the bulls do.”
Someone else was at the ’82 Finals to watch Charles win the championship. Myrtis Dightman showed up to help him pull his rope on the final bull of the season.