His name is Charlie Sampson, and he looks as if he just rode in from the Ponderosa. With big wrists and a bow-legged swagger, he could have been Little Joe's brother, except that Sampson is black and there were no black cowboys on "Bonanza."
But at the National Invitational Black Rodeo, three days of rawhide bronco-busting, calf-roping and bull-riding at the D.C. Armory, Sampson is a star.
"Now, here's a fellow hotter than a two-dollar stove at bean-cookin' time," announcer Charles Evans said by way of introducing Sampson. "He's considered one of the best bull riders in the country.You can always tell a bull rider because one arm is longer than the other. You don't have to be crazy to be one, but it sure helps. Awriiight. Let's hear it for the man we call 'Mighty Mite.'"
Sampson stands only 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 134 pounds. He pulled his Wrangler jeans up around his taut waistline and chewed his lip.
The Lone Ranger would say, "Hi-yo, Silver," and the show would begin. At the black rodeo, they say, "Yo-ho, baby," and with the crack of a chute the roughriders like Sampson do their thing.
There have been many black cowpokes and wranglers -- over 8,000 were known to have ridden the great cattle drives of the late 1800s. But in the reconstruction of Old West history, few heard about them. Bill Pickett, for example, was the man who invented bulldogging. But most people are more familiar with this two assistants -- the guys he taught to rope and ride. They were comedian Will Rogers and actor Tom Mix.
Forty years after his death Pickett became the first black man in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, and today scores of other black cowboys are on the National Black Rodeo circuit.
"There's been blacks in the rodeo ever since there was rodeo," drawled Sampson, 23, winner of the Del Rio Bull Riding Championship -- a worldwide competition. With a few minutes to spare before going into a state of "pre-ride" mediation, Sampson dispensed with social history and surveyed the 1,600-pound Brahman bull whose number he had drawn.
"Now I've got to control this thing," he said, respectfully. "Obviously I can't strong-arm it. You just can't get on it and be successful. The trick is cetrifugal force, going with the flow," he said, as he lapsed into a rock-steady demonstration.
Sampson is just getting back on the circuit. He was out of competition for nine months when a bull kicked him in the leg and broke it. He almost lost his life in 1979 when a bull stepped on his chest, crushing his sternum and puncturing his lung with a rib bone.
"I don't mean to be snotty," he said, while turning to walk away, "but I got to think about this bull."
Thinking about the bull is vital but so is thinking about money: It's possible for a top contender to make upward of $125,000 a year. With that in mind, cowboys are anxious to hit as many rodeo circuits as they can afford to travel to. For many cowboys -- black and white -- a growing black rodeo circuit can only mean more for everybody. Sampson, who split a second and third place during the weekend event, expects to take home about $2,000 for his efforts.
But few cowboys manage to make financial ends meet on the circuit; the cost of maintaining and transporting themselves and their horses is almost prohibitive unless one is on a steady winning streak. Most cowboys lead double lives.
Rex Purefoy, 30, a trick-rope artist from Kansas City, Kan., doubles as a free-lance photographer, looking for weddings and other social events to shoot when he is not on the circuit. Then there is Dave Robinson, 20, a vice president of the Connecticut Future Farmers of America. He rents campground sites when he's not riding broncos. Willie Ferguson, an accomplished bull rider, drives a bus locally for Metro.
There are cooks and maintenance men, teachers and at least one lawyer.
One of the few rodeo participants to make a go of it year-round is Rooster Wyatt, 47, from Dallas. He is a professional clown and gets paid to distract the bull after a rider has dismounted.
"You can make a pretty good living doing this," said Wyatt. "They pay me according to the distance that I have to travel to participate."
Washington, which is virtually surrounded by horse country, was able to get in on the action when Joan A. Burt, a Howard University graduate and lawyer, saw a black rodeo while visiting Houston last year. She was so impressed that she formed Rawhide Products to bring the first National Invitational Black Rodeo, which concludes today, to the nation's captial.
"I'd never heard of a black rodeo before, and watching it was really something special," Burt said. "Most blacks don't go to regular rodeos because they don't figure there'll be any blacks in it, so I started thinking about the kids in D.C. and what a terrific image this would be. We're talking about independent, self-made men."
Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers made a guest appearance. As a child growing up in Tyler, Tex., he was fond of horse-riding and bronco-busting. In the face of criticism from the Washington Humane Society that rodeos are cruel to animals, Campbell rubbed the seat of his pants and smiled. "Animals are made a certain way for certain things," he said. "When I was riding bareback, my back hurt a lot more than the horses."
Converting the D.C. Armory into a rodeo proved as difficult as it sounds. Several inches of a clay and sawdust compost were laid out over a mat and fenced in, but the clay stayed soft and made bulls behave as though they were trying to buck on a sandy beach.
Riders, who get points for how well their bulls buck, had mixed feelings. They may not have received as many points as they would have otherwise, but they didn't get as many bruises, either.
"It don't matter to me because I ain't seen so many black children at a rodeo before," said Joe Childress, a bareback rider from Des Moines. "You just want to strut yourself, make sure you do the best you can so they can go home feeling they've had a good time."
"I didn't think there were many black cowboys," said Jay Haggler, 14, of Vienna, Va.. "I think it's good to have them here," added his friend, Tim Fortune, also 14. Both youths had skipped school to attend the rodeo.
Now it was Charlie Sampson's turn. Here was a guy from Los Angeles who could have passed as an urban cowboy if it weren't for his preference for real bulls. He had ridden his first horse while on a cub scout field trip to a stable. By the time he was 13, he was riding horses competitively.
"I used to watch the guys at the stable break out into a gallop and just disappear into the hills," Sampson recalled. "It looked like so much fun. I would say, 'Please, sir, will you give me a ride?' I would do anything -- feed the horses, wash them, anything for a five-minute ride."
Then came bulls.
"I was always athletic. But I was too small for football and too slow for baseball. Since I had a low center of gravity, I figured, why not."
An independent-minded loner, Sampson learned that he and bulls had a lot in common. He would use them to rake in enough money to start building a West Coast ranch. In time, he says, he'd like to start building a family -- if the bull allows.
When the chute opens, the bull explodes into a series of violent gyrations. El Toro, the mechanical bull on display outside the rodeo ring, was never like this. Fall off El Toro, and a man with an ignition switch turns the motor off. Fall off the real thing, and the action may just be starting.
But Sampson hangs on, clutching the leather strap that encircles the bull's stomach.
"Look at 'Mighty Mite' do his thing," the announcer yells. Sampson , one hand held high above his head, goes with the flow. He spurs the bull at the shoulder, for extra kick and more points. "Go, 'Mighty,'" a child yells from the stands. When the bell rings, and it is clear that 'Mighty Mite' has done it again, he slides off and onto the soft clay below. Clowns jump between him and bull, luring the menance to the other side of the field.
"You just have to believe in yourself," Sampson said. "I just see myself being the best cowboy, sitting tall in the saddle."