World Champion Bull Rider Turned Header: Charlie Sampson
Charles Sampson has to be one of the most unlikely ProRodeo Hall of Famers of all time, growing up the 11th of 13 kids in the impoverished Watts neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Though he’s best known at the roughstock end of the arena, team roping has played a part in the popular cowboy’s life and career since the start. The 1982 world champion bull rider, who competed at 10 National Finals Rodeos between 1981-93 and is 61 now, lives in Pennsylvania with his fiancée, Connie. He still loves to team rope.

Q: How did a kid from Watts get started wearing a cowboy hat in the first place?

A: I worked for a boarding stable where people also rented horses—El Fig Riding Stable—a few miles from Watts. I cleaned stalls and rode ponies at the El Monte Horse and Mule Auction every Friday night. If a pony bucked with me, I got a dollar or two tip. Every little kid wants to be a cowboy, including me. So I saved up those tips and bought myself my first cowboy hat when I was 11 or 12.

Q: Why bull riding?

A: I was a city kid. I had no idea I was going to be a bull rider. Bull riding came to me. There was a calf roper, bulldogger and team roper from Stringtown, Oklahoma, named Gene Smith who came and lived in our area. Gene was a country boy. I’d work the chute for him when he was practicing, then I’d ride the bigger bulldogging steers. Gene and everybody else called me Pee Wee back then, and at the Thursday night practice sessions in Long Beach Gene would have them put the bigger steers to the side for me to ride. Gene’s the one who saw a cowboy in me that I didn’t even know was in there. He believed in me before I believed in myself.

Q: Who were your cowboy heroes when you were a kid?

CS: Besides Gene Smith, who took all of us wannabes and wish-we-weres from Southern California and made cowboys out of us, there was Tommy Cloud, who owned the El Fig Riding Stable. And Johnny Ashby, who boarded a horse at El Fig. Johnny used to let me warm up his horses when he practiced his team roping. He also rode bulls when the rodeos came to town.

Q: When, where and how did you lose your left ear?

A: I had a bull buck me off at the Reno Rodeo in 1988. He ran me over and stepped on the left side of my head. It didn’t knock me out, but I was definitely dazed. He tore my ear off and I didn’t even know it. There wasn’t a lot of blood. That bull crushed the crown of my hat, and it ripped my ear clean off.

Q: What do you remember about the Presidential Command Performance Rodeo, which was hosted by President Reagan in the fall of 1983?

A: I just remember wanting to be there to ride for the President of the United States, especially because I was the defending world champion. I was proud to ride for my country. I remember paying my entry fees. I drew Howard Harris’s bull #50 Kiss Me from Kissimmee, Florida. He jerked me down on top of his head, knocked me out and put me in the trauma unit. The doctor who took care of me became a friend of mine, and when he watched the video the way he put it was that that bull rattled my brain. That little wreck should have killed me, so I feel very lucky to be alive.

Q: When did you hang up your bull riding chaps, and how did you know it was time?

A: I won Salinas, Greeley and the first round at Cheyenne in 1993, and rode at the Finals that year. At the start of 1994, I went to Denver and won third. Then on the flight back to Fort Worth to get on my second bull, it hit me. I knew it was time. It was so clear to me that I was done that I didn’t get on my second bull.

Q: When and how did team roping enter into the picture?

A: Johnny Ashby was a team roper, and I became his surrogate son. I washed his horses to make them look good at the ropings. I’d go to the jackpots with him on Wednesday nights, basically as his groom. I’d saddle his horse when he went to look for partners. My reward was that he’d give me a dollar, which is what it cost to run three practice steers before the roping started. He let me rope them on his horse Buster, who took good care of me.

Q: Do you always head?

A: Yes, almost always. I have heeled, but I was one of those one-hit wonders. Back when (1985 World Champion Bull Rider) Ted (Nuce) lived in Escalon, California, I bought a chestnut mare I called Bubba from Ted’s friends J.D. and Della Garr in Laton, and had (NFR header) Jim Wheatley train her for me. She was perfect. I won so much money in the bull riding in 1982—and you only had to win $1 in a second event to qualify for the all-around—so Ted and I entered a few rodeos here and there (Charlie finished seventh in that year’s world all-around race). At the end of the season that year, we entered Portland. All the tough team ropers were there, Ted wanted to head that night, and he knocked his hat off swinging his rope riding into the box. (Bob) Tallman was telling the crowd, “Hide your babies and cover up your wife, ’cause here’s a wreck looking to happen.” We won the round, and every jaw dropped.

Q: How much do you get to rope these days?

A: I had surgery for a partial shoulder replacement on my roping arm last year, so I’m still not quite back into full swing yet. But I’m working on it. I have a great head horse, Stormy, who’s a bay 13-year-old out of a Sun Frost stud and a Two Eyed Jack mare. He came off of the Weaver Ranch in Montana, and Jay and Brit Ellerman trained him for me. I’ve turned down big money for him, but he’s not for sale. I finally have the nicest horse in the world, and my shoulder’s getting back to being ready to roll. So let’s go.

Q: Is a hall of fame bull riding career a tough act to follow in terms of adrenaline?

A: I never was an adrenaline junky, so I don’t know. I’m not a thrill seeker. I was afraid of bulls. That’s why I rode them good. For me, adrenaline is when you’re roping and your finger gets caught in the dally.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

A: My two boys and my three grandbabies are my greatest achievement. I’m still working on another goal, which is to be the best person I can be. Bull riding was my career. Living a good life is what I do now.

Q: Who are your favorite team ropers to watch, and why?

A: I always watch Clay O’Brien Cooper. I saw him around as a kid in Southern California and had a chance to rope with him when we were both teenagers. To see somebody like Clay come from my neighborhood and become who he is—I admire him. He grew up to be a great team roper and I grew up to be a world champion bull rider. No one else from our neighborhood can say either of those things. 

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