ANNVILLE, Pa. — Nicholas Jackson was already caked in dirt when he climbed onto the back of a white-spotted bull on a cold Monday night in March. “You have a feel for him. That’s what he is. Have fun,” a stock contractor said to the 13-year-old on top of a 1,500-pound animal named Doctor Evil, before yanking open the rusted chute. The bull violently bucked a few feet into the air, frantically spinning with Jackson on his back.
From atop a railing a few feet away, Corey Jackson anxiously watched his son, the fulfillment of a family legacy and perhaps the future of a sport. “Sit up!” he yelled, and Nicholas did just that for about six seconds before starting to lose his balance. He fell off and landed on his back, and as the bull knelt over him, Nicholas could feel the animal crushing his chest. Four contractors in protective vests quickly surrounded him, trying to separate the kid and the bull. But the bull kept kicking over Nicholas, using his snout to swipe the teen across the helmet.
His father had seen enough. Corey jumped off the railing into the pit, his brown cowboy boots kicking up dust as he ran to get between his son and the bull. The animal charged Corey, a former Division I linebacker, putting him on his back and sending his tan cowboy hat flying into the dirt. The bull used a horn to fling Corey’s leg into the air, then came within inches of planting a hoof into his face before running to another corner of the dark arena. Nicholas limped off, escaping up onto the rails.
The contractors helped Corey to his feet, and the group of men giggled with relief. “You’re going to need Bengay tomorrow morning!” one joked to Corey, who soon rushed over to his son. His wife, Robyn, had watched the whole episode from behind the railing, terrified of what could have happened.
“We’re going to talk about this,” she said, shaking her head as her husband and son walked out of the pit. And on the three-hour drive home to Prince George’s County, Md., Robyn and her husband wondered how they could better protect their son in what many consider the world’s most dangerous sport.
Nicholas is a world champion in his age group and a rising star. His parents drive him nearly six hours round-trip to practices in Pennsylvania most weeks, both because it is his dream and because they believe he represents something larger than himself. He comes from five generations of horse trainers and sharecroppers, and as a young Black bull rider from Prince George’s County, he’s honoring family members who were never able to compete at his age.
And as professional bull riding looks for new ways to diversify and educate its fan base on the rich but largely ignored history of Black competitors, many in the industry see Nicholas as a young athlete who can help shatter racial stereotypes and inspire other kids to ride.
For now, all his parents can hope to do is shield him from the potential danger of his dream — not just from the bulls he rides but also, as a family that has sometimes endured racism at events, from the challenges of competing in a predominantly White sport.
“If he gets hurt, there’s no more bull riding,” Robyn told her husband as he drove down a darkened highway in the family’s Suburban. Nicholas sat in the back, the glow of a phone reflecting on his face as he watched a video of his dangerous ride over and over.
Two decades ago, Corey and Robyn met at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, an all-Black rodeo named after the legendary cowboy who was the son of a former enslaved person and became the first African American inducted to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Robyn was in medical school at Georgetown and had always grown up around animals. Corey had just finished his college football career at Western Carolina and was being drawn to the horseman lifestyle. That Christmas, they went to a western cabaret.
“She was all cowgirled up, I was all cowboyed up, and we pretty much danced the whole night,” he said. “I was certainly hooked right there.”
Their dates became trail rides, and eventually their five kids fell in love with horses, too. Their 14-year-old son, Robert, has special needs and has used rides for therapy, and he has become Nicholas’s biggest fan. The couple’s 10-year-old twin daughters, Ryan and Reagan, have developed into champion barrel racers, pole benders and goat tiers; and their 8-year-old son, Dylan, also races barrels and rides smaller bulls. After the kids home-school each day, they run out to the pasture in the back of the family’s Upper Marlboro home to look after their horses.
The kids’ success was a source of great pride for Robyn’s father, Robert Harper. As horse trainers and sharecroppers in southern Maryland for five generations, their family had always been exposed to horses for work. Robyn remembers hearing stories about her father asking to ride the same horses that the farm owners’ children rode for leisure.
“The owner would say: ‘No, those aren’t for you. You work with the mule.’ … It was the workhorse,” Robyn said. “It really instilled in him a fire to not be limited.”
Their grandfather saw the kids as a breakthrough for young Black cowboys and cowgirls who had never gotten recognition in the sport.
“He really reveled in the kids following in the family legacy of being horsemen and just being involved with horses,” Corey said. “For him to see these kids participate in rodeo and riding … at such a young age, where he didn’t have that opportunity at that age, it was just mesmerizing for him, and he bragged on these kids all the time.”
Corey would tell the kids about the rich history of Black competitors, including in bull riding. The first and last Black bull rider to win a world title was Charles Sampson in 1982, and he and Myrtis Dightman — who is often called the Jackie Robinson of the sport and broke the color barrier as the first to compete at the National Finals Rodeo in 1964 — are the only Black bull riders to be inducted to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
The kids also learned about the forgotten history of the Black settlers of the American West, which has mostly been erased from popular cultural and historical narratives. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, as the country pushed westward, 25 percent of cowboys who worked ranches and rode trails were Black, historians estimate.
While national rodeo organizations never overtly segregated like other professional sports leagues during the middle of the 20th century, Jim Crow-era laws kept Black athletes from competing in most White-sponsored rodeos. Many Black competitors banded together and formed their own rodeos; by the 1960s, with Jim Crow laws being repealed and civil rights legislation passing, more Black riders competed alongside White riders. Today, pro rodeo remains a predominantly White sport, and reported estimates are that roughly 75 percent of the Pro Bull Riders’ viewers are White.
Harper saw his grandson as the next in line. He was close with Nicholas, often taking him to 7-Eleven for Slurpees and talking with him every week about bull riding. When Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, weakened by constant chemo rounds, he mustered the strength to see Nicholas compete one last time at a regional rodeo, climbing up onto the back of the chutes to get a good sightline.
“It took everything physically for him to be there,” Robyn said. “It was a great night.” After Nicholas won, his grandfather took him to Sheetz to celebrate, downing two chili dogs even as his body resisted the fast food. He died at 66 shortly after seeing his grandson ride a final time.
“At the rodeos, I really want to do well to show … to almost put a good name on the family,” Nicholas said. “So everyone is like — ‘Oh, look, it’s the Jacksons. We know them.’ ”
In December, Nicholas won the junior world finals, the top title in youth bull riding, in his age group, officially announcing himself as one to watch in the sport.
His technique and poise on such a bright stage had been considered flawless — his riding average was a perfect 100 percent, meaning he covered the bull for eight seconds in each of his three rounds — and a few days later the Professional Bull Riders congratulated him on Twitter, telling him it hoped to see him down the road as an eligible pro — when he turns 18 in 2026.
“Before, I just told myself: ‘This is the time. This is where you can make it all happen,’ ” Nicholas said. “When it all happened, I didn’t really know what to think. Because it was so cool.”
For the PBR, Jackson is exactly the kind of athlete it wants to attract to the sport. While professional bull riding has a strong Latin presence — seven of the 10 highest-ranked bull riders in the world are from Brazil, which has produced 11 world champions since 1994 — just one Black American, Ezekiel Mitchell, is currently ranked in the top 35 of the PBR’s standings.
This year, the organization teamed with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo to create more opportunities for Black competitors, with the aim of diversifying the sport’s fan base and educating people on the forgotten and uncelebrated past of the Black cowboy.
Jackson could be the future. He has an instinctive feel for the center of the bull’s back that is considered extremely rare for his age, and his parents have carefully built his confidence and fearlessness by keeping him on smaller bulls as he has progressed. They have spent around $20,000 per year so he could receive lessons from former professionals and appear at rodeos across the country to work on his craft. (It can be a lucrative profession; during the 2019 season, the average earnings of the PBR’s top 10 bull riders was $496,000.)
“There’s just something about him. He’s special,” said one of his coaches, Tim Johnson, a former pro bull rider.
“He’s got a gold buckle in his future, in my opinion,” said another former pro, Trinity Dunkelberger, referring to the coveted prize of a professional world championship.
But Nicholas’s success as a Black competitor in a predominantly White sport has been accompanied by challenges. About a week after he won the title in Texas, Corey said, he started to see posts on social media accusing his family of cheating — arguing that Nicholas, who is 5-foot-7, was too tall and too old to compete in the age division he won.
“Then it got racial,” he said. “Then it was like: ‘Okay, what’s really the problem here?’ Is it a kid who’s riding beyond his years and is taller than the rest of his class? Okay, that’s one thing. But when you throw racial slurs into it, that makes it a whole other can of worms.”
As the only Black family at many rodeos each weekend, the Jacksons have felt welcome at a majority of events as their kids have become more involved with the sport over the years. Many of their friends, coaches and supporters are White. Corey and Robyn never wanted race to be at the forefront of their children’s minds when they showed up each weekend.
“[Rodeo] does transcend race in a lot of instances,” Corey said, “and racism still rears its ugly face in other instances as well.”
When the kids were younger and starting out in the sport, Corey and Robyn took them to Field Day of the Past outside Richmond, where there was a rodeo and a fair. As far as they could tell, they were the only Black family there. Small Confederate flags were being handed out at an entrance. When the family went to get cotton candy at the fair, people were taunting the Jacksons, Corey said, waving the flags in their faces as they approached a concession stand.
“We had to gather the kids up and get them out of there, because it was just blatant,” he said.
Corey doesn’t believe his son “has ever been called the n-word in public,” he said, but a few years ago at a practice session with bull riders of all ages, a White cowboy used the slur repeatedly in a conversation with Corey before the owners of the facility kicked the man out. Sometimes there are microaggressions when they show up at events. “Like, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ type of looks,” he said.
A few times, he has been skeptical of how White judges might score his son’s rides, something Black riders have always faced. But Corey never says anything to the judges. Instead, he focuses on helping his son become the best rider he can, always telling Nicholas the same thing after every ride: “Way to be.” It’s his way of letting his son know that he loves him and believes in exactly who he is. He wants Nicholas to remember it, especially in those moments when he might endure challenges as a young Black man in a predominantly White sport.
“As he gets older and I’m not his traveling partner anymore … I’m hoping and praying that he won’t have those challenges,” Corey said. “But also I’m not naive enough that a 200-plus-year history of racism in this country probably won’t be fixed in the next five years. If we haven’t fixed it in 200-plus years of America, and the 500-plus years as we date back to slavery, I don’t think it will be fixed in the next five to 10 years. We just hope it can be better.”
Who knows, Corey has thought to himself, maybe his son will one day travel alongside one of his mentors, Mitchell, the 24-year-old who is trying to become the first Black world champion in nearly four decades.
Mitchell said in an interview that he has not encountered “negativity toward my color” while competing for six years. Many of his best friends in the sport are White, he said, and true fans of bull riding “won’t care what color you are or whatever you do, as long as you’re getting the job done.” His message for Nicholas: Win, and pay no attention to ignorance.
“I feel like it’s the biggest thing for any African American cowboy that is going to come through the ranks: There is a beauty in ignoring things. … Ignorance cannot affect you if you do not choose to be ignorant back or you just completely ignore it,” Mitchell said. “I know that people want to see another African American world champion, and hopefully I can be that. And if not, I hope that I can help Nic get there one day.”
Rain dripped from Nicholas’s cream-colored cowboy hat on a Sunday afternoon in late March. He stood behind the same chute where Doctor Evil had nearly crushed him a few weeks earlier, having returned for a high school rodeo that was being swamped by unrelenting showers. The weekend had been fun. He and his friends rode around nearby fields on a four-wheeler, and he had attended a rodeo prom with other young competitors the night before.
But now Jackson wanted to be alone behind the chute, where he geared up to ride a brown bull named Knot Head. He laced up his boots with spurs, strapped on brown and teal leather chaps, rolled on a gray tattered armband and tugged a black protective vest over his shoulders. He trudged through the mud before peeking into the dark arena. A weathered blue trailer from the 1960s served as the concession stand in one corner, and an old speaker played country tunes.
Nicholas turned away and stared at the rolling green hills of a nearby farm. Knot Head rumbled in the cage behind him. He removed his cowboy hat and visualized what his father had told him after a lackluster ride on the first day of the event: “You’re the world champion. Don’t ride down to the bull.”
He mumbled a prayer to himself, asking for protection and for the kind of ride that would bring him another title.
He climbed the chutes and eventually wrapped his skinny legs around Knot Head. Corey joined him, making sure all of his straps were in place before placing his hand on his son’s shoulder to say another prayer.
Nicholas nodded his head. The gate flung open, and the bull immediately bucked his way to the middle of the arena. Nicholas stayed square on the animal’s back and waved his hand through the air.
The crowd whistled and cheered. His brothers and sisters yelled “Go, Nic!” as he stayed on top of the bull, spinning over and over again, until eight seconds had elapsed. It was a perfect ride.
The judge gave him the highest score in his division, another honor in a young career that is just taking off. Nicholas jumped off Knot Head and onto his feet, and his father could fully exhale.
This time Corey didn’t need to protect his son, but he still hopped over the railing and met him near the spot where he had saved Nicholas on that Monday night a few weeks earlier.
“Way to be,” Corey told him, and his son beamed as they walked out of the arena. He took off his black helmet and removed his mouth guard.
“Now that,” Nicholas said, “was a good ride.”