"Do you want to try riding?" asked Charlie Sampson, who was speaking of bull riding, which, as the current world champion, he could arrange for me. I have bounced on my delicate brow off a motorcycle. I have been under a canoe in white water. Deep into a keg of beer once, I said, "Everest, schmeverest."
Bull riding, no.
I don't ride horsies who bring me flowers, let alone 1,500-pound bulls who hate my guts.
Sampson is a good guy. He's 26, a world champion, a teacher of bull riding, a professional who said ordinary folks came to him and left content having ridden a bull. So he wondered if, to get a first-hand knowledge of his game, I might like to try it.
"No," I said in land-speed-record time.
Charlie looked hurt.
"Never once, of all the crazy things I've thought of, have I thought of riding a bull. (Let's change the subject.) What's it like, anyway?"
Mario Andretti said he was asked so often what it's like out there at 200 miles per hour that he wanted to say just once, "Damned hairy."
Charlie Sampson said, "You can't be afraid. You are afraid. But you can't be afraid afraid."
Sampson is a bull-riding rarity, a black cowboy born in Watts. He left Watts before the riots of the late '60s, by then leading trail rides outside Gardena, a Los Angeles suburb. He wasn't any bigger then than now, 5 feet 4 and 128 pounds, and if the traditional sports called him, he was too busy at rodeos to hear.
He started on steers. Little steers. The 800-pounders. He was about 10 years old and 80 pounds of innocence. Nobody told him it was impossible for a teeny-tiny kid to ride those bucking steers. So he did it.
Then one day Gardena's old cowboys put him in a pickup truck and said we're going somewheres, kid. Somewheres was Tishomingo, Okla., which is a moonscape 100 miles north of Dallas. A kid out of Los Angeles ain't been nowhere or seen nothin' until he's seen Tishomingo from the back of a bull.
Did he say a bull?
First thing Charlie Sampson knew in Tishomingo, the old cowboys paid $15 to enter him in the bull riding.
"I ain't never rode a bull," Sampson said, as best he remembers that day 13 years ago.
"You're doing good on them steers. Time to get on a bull," the old cowboys said. Hell's bells, a kid can't stay a kid forever.
They sat all 100 pounds of the kid on a bull so wide Charlie felt like he was straddling a locomotive. They lashed his hand to the bull. They said to nod at the gate man when he wanted the chute to open, letting loose this locomotive with horns bigger than Texas.
That's about all Sampson remembers.
"I don't even remember asking for the gate," he says now.
He does remember the bull jumping twice and he remembers Charlie Sampson, age 13, jumping once to get off that wild thing before it ate him for breakfast. He landed on his feet, Sampson did, and his feet were running for home.
"The old cowboys figured they'd blown their $15 for no good reason," Sampson said.
Run the film fast-forward and you'll see the $15 was the start. At 15, he won his first money, $164, riding in El Cajon, Calif. There have been a thousand bulls since, with Sampson riding the requisite eight seconds more often than not. He's seen rodeo get so big that colleges in Wyoming and Oklahoma "give guys horse trailers and trucks."
In 1982, Sampson rode in 148 towns, a bull a town, with 10 more in the national finals to wrap up the championship. He was 93 for 158, a .588 batting average.
The bull's .412 is exciting, too, because, in a flash dance without the leg warmers, he jumps, spins, bucks and twists until peace is achieved. Sampson's injuries include two broken ribs, a punctured lung, two broken legs, a concussion that left him unconscious for three hours, a few "hooks" (cowboy talk for horns carving you up) and a chronically sore left wrist/arm/shoulder from holding on to a three-quarters-ton bull hopping mad because somebody cinched a belt too tight around his belly.
Sampson says he is "riding good and believing, so I'm as good as anybody going down the road right now." He has a scouting report on a bull named JJJ, his opponent Saturday night at Capital Centre, where a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event offers a $2,500 first prize.
"Triple J's a 1,700-pound Brahma cross with a Charolais. He's a white bull with horns. He jumps high and, when he hits, he backs up. That's pulling you down on top of his head. He's a good spinning bull, too."
Sampson put down his lunch fork. He grabbed the bottom of his chair with his left hand and leaned way back, the way he'll fight JJJ's backing up. His right hand cut toward the sky, for balance. Then, look out, Sampson nearly bobbed his head into his crab cakes as JJJ pulled him forward.
"You gotta move with the bull. You can't fight him and you can't sit up there stiff on him. You gotta be aggressive and you gotta believe you can ride him."
Sampson, wired now, said he could take an ordinary fellow, a sportswriter even, and teach him to stay on a mild-mannered bull. "You sure you don't want to?" he said, and I said, "Let me think about it for a few decades."