When meeting Charles Sampson for the first time, don’t be surprised if there is the undeniable feeling that a friendship was forged years ago. Sampson has a way of making a person feel that way, mostly because of an affable sincerity, but maybe due to his familiar face, made popular after winning the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) bull riding championship of the world in 1982, and the first African American to win the award.
Afterwards, Sampson was interviewed by numerous magazines and news agencies, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. What makes Sampson even more recognizable are the Wrangler Jeans advertisements and the Timex Watch campaign during the 1990s that used the bull rider, comparing him to their watches that “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
Now a Wickenburg resident and team roper, Charles grins when he thinks back to the year he won the world championship.
“It was a rewarding feeling, the proudest moment of my life,” he exclaimed. “That was an exciting year. I joined the PRCA in 1978 and set the goal to be champion in five years. It was also an exciting year because it was one of the first I was able to ride without being sore, crippled. That was a goal setting year.”
Originally from Watts, Calif., in Los Angeles County, Sampson first discovered horses as a youngster at a stable down the street from his house. The owner offered pony rides for 25 cents, and after the first time around the circle, Sampson was hooked. He spent his last three quarters and then began hanging around the stable, offering to do chores for rides.
“I just fell in love being around those animals,” remembered Sampson, who became a fixture at the stables and was eventually befriended by cowboys who taught him how to rope and ride.
At 14, Sampson began team roping at and at 15 he rode his first bull.
“I don’t remember the ride,” he laughed. “Before the third jump I was off and running, not knowing what happened. I look back and wonder why I ever got on a bull again.”
But Sampson was a natural – strong, determined and slight of stature, at 5’4. His size earned him the nickname “Peewee” from his friends. He competed in team roping, steer wrestling and bull riding, but once he joined the Pro Rodeo Association, it was clear he excelled at riding the bulls, streamlining his career to that field of competition.
Sampson attended Central Arizona College in Casa Grande on a rodeo scholarship and he enjoyed competing, acknowledging that the college prepared him for the professional rodeo circuit.
Through his career, Charles suffered a variety of serious injuries, from having a bull snap his thigh bone right out of high school, to having his breastbone split and pushed into his lung.
One of his more memorable injuries occurred in Washington D.C., during the 1983 Presidential Command Performance Rodeo. As President Ronald Reagan and invited dignitaries looked on, Sampson suffered a fractured skull and a crushed cheek.
“Unfortunately, I went to the ICU and everyone else went to the White House lawn,” chuckled Sampson.
Reagan was so concerned that he called Sampson, and they spoke when he was well enough.
“We had a nice talk,” he remembered. “We’re both from California and like horses. We exchanged photos.”
Sampson was able to see the White House and still remembers the amazement of experiencing the sense of history in the Oval Office.
Another honor was Sampson’s induction into the PRCA Hall of Fame in 1996, two years after he retired from bull riding.
Some of Sampson’s wins include the Turquoise Circuit Finals in 1985-86 and 1993, the Sierra Circuit in 1984, the Calgary Stampede bonus round (twice), the George Paul Memorial (twice) in Pendleton, Ore., and Salinas, Calif.
“It’s been good,” Sampson said with a smile, while he waited for his name to be called at a recent roping. “I’m enjoying team roping here in Wickenburg, with all the roping arenas around here and I love the camaraderie.
“That’s what’s so neat about these ropings,” he added. “Everybody’s from everywhere but we’re all so compatible; always joking, praising one another whether we lose or win.”
When asked if he missed bull riding, Charles grinned.
“There’s no old bull riders,” he noted. “I like roping. There’s a learning method in this, and that’s what keeps it so intriguing, thrilling. It’s thrilling because you always wonder if you’re going to be better the next time.”