The day I meet Charlie Sampson, 58, he turns out to be much smaller than I imagined, yet his immense hands swallow mine. They’re thick, powerful, and strangely large for a man who only stands 5 feet 4 inches tall. And they awkwardly engulf his utensils as we eat lunch. His mitts were created for the sole purpose of grabbing a bull rope.
“Thank you, darlin’” he says with disarming sweetness to the waitress and flirts with her throughout our meal. “I just like to see a pretty girl smile.”
Charlie is quick to laugh and toggles between jovial anecdotes about his bull riding days and deep, thoughtful pauses to carefully choose his words. The guy also had his ear ripped off by a bull and wears a rubber prosthetic over the scar. And he has the peg-legged gait typical of so many cowboys pushing 60. A hardware store worth of screws in your leg will do that. Still, he’s pretty darn spry for having made a living atop (and under) 2,000-pound bulls.
“There’s nothing else I ever wanted to be or do,” Charlie says about being a cowboy. It was an unconventional dream for a poor kid from Watts, Calif., (essentially a ghetto of Los Angeles). Exposure to a local stable on a class field trip planted the seed.
Throughout his life, Sampson defied adversity. He was a small man riding big bulls, an African American city kid against stacked odds in the rodeo world.
Well, he beat those odds all the way to 10 NFR qualifications and the distinction of being the first African American in pro rodeo to win a world championship.
What got him to the top?
Grit, that’s what.
The word first shows up in American English in the 19th century to describe character. To have “grit in your gut” was to show determination, perseverance, toughness, and a positive, can-do attitude. Mark Twain, in his unique style, uses the word to describe the plucky Mary Jane in Huckleberry Finn (1884): “She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion—there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand.”
There’s no backdown in Charlie Sampson, either.
“Focus, determination, a forward outlook,” says Charlie when I ask him to define grit. “You just grit it out.” And that’s just what he did—and still does.
“Riding bulls had a purpose for me: to show myself that I could do it,” he says. “I liked proving to myself that I could do what I set my mind to. With determination and technique, I knew I could go far. I was very consistent. Taller guys had a harder time translating the power and the force of the bull, countering his moves… The stereotype was that we rodeoed, fought in the bars, chased women, then left town. No one ever sees the training or the preparation. Cowboys don’t get the respect that regular team sport athletes get. There are people dying in just the practice arena. Today, safety has changed for the better.”
Charlie pioneered the use of helmets in bull riding, if only to protect a face already smashed up. One year at NFR, to make a showing because he needed the money, Charlie wore a lacrosse helmet over broken bones in his forehead, sinuses, cheek, jaw, and chin.
“I never rode bulls expecting to get hurt,” he deflects. “I rode bulls, and that’s just part of bull riding … I never had any sort of strategy to recover from injuries. That was all just part of my upbringing; what I was taught around the stables. It was my mindset that made me the rider I turned out to be. Mental preparation.”
When asked if he ever faced discrimination for his skin color, Charlie brushes it off: “It got better throughout my career. I didn’t see the worst of it. I was taught at an early age by C.B. Alexander to ‘keep my mouth shut and ride.’ He’d seen how it was for other cowboys, who’d get upset if they got cheated—they never got high scores again. He called it the ‘skinning room,’ where judges would gather and alter scores. I’m naturally quiet anyway and not a hothead.”
These days, all he wants to do is rope: “I try to team rope as much as possible. Roping is the backbone of the cowboy community. It allows us to gather and practice our craft. I love the Western lifestyle and Western people. In the city, I’m out of my element. I should have been born in Stringtown, Okla., or Slocum, Texas. I’m just as country as any country boy, even though I was born in the city.”
If cowboys symbolize anything, it’s fortitude. And fortitude is not sourced by anger or physical strength; it’s sourced by love. Faced with uncertain weather, unruly cattle, and vast rangeland, cowboys—historic and current—are willing to suffer for what they love: their families, the animals they care for, the land they steward, and their way of life. By definition and job description, cowboys show grit in their gut by, well, being cowboys. They must persevere or perish. That’s grit. And that’s Charlie Sampson.