During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
Ezekiel Mitchell got used to people staring at his feet while growing up in Texas.
“They’d ask me why I was wearing boots, and I’d tell them I was a cowboy,’’ he said. “And they’d be like, ‘There’s no such thing as a Black cowboy. You can’t be a Black cowboy.' "
That was before Mitchell, now 23-years-old, strung up a 55-gallon drum in his yard, climbed atop it as if it were a bull and taught himself to ride.
Before he used YouTube videos to develop his technique and eventually ride real bulls. Since then, he's become one of the best in the sport, making two appearances in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) World Finals and this year he rode Smooth Operator for 93 points, the second-highest scoring ride this season.
And before he made his debut with the PBR at 19-years-old and became embedded in the rich history of Black rodeo cowboys.
“The thing that fascinates me is just how many people don’t know about it,’’ he said.
Charles Sampson (left), Myrtis Dightman and Jesse "Charlie Reno" Hall in 2016 when Dightman was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. Photo: Jesse "Charlie Reno" Hall. (Photo: Jesse "Charlie Reno" Hall.)
The story of professional Black bull riders remains one of the most fascinating, and still mostly unknown and untold, pieces of American sports history. We know about the history of Black athletes in professional baseball, football, basketball and other sports, but bull riding is often forgotten when it comes to history. It shouldn't be.
Black bull riders, however, have a sense of their own history. In the first grade, Mitchell said, a librarian fed his interest by giving him books on Black rodeo cowboys, and he began to read about men with whom he is linked today.
One of them is Charles Sampson, who in 1982 became the first Black bull rider to win a world championship, the culmination of an improbable journey.
Sampson grew up in Watts and was 8 during the deadly uprisings that spilled into Los Angeles. A few years later, as a member of the Cub Scouts, he took a trip to the local horse stables and fell in love with the ponies.
Twenty-five cents a ride.
‘‘I ran out of money,’’ Sampson said. “I asked the man what could I do to ride? He said, ‘Well I need some help around here.'"
Sampson cleaned the stalls in exchange for pony rides, and at those stables he met rodeo cowboys who helped guide him from riding ponies to bulls by age 15.
In high school, Sampson said, classmates thought he was “a dice shooter” because of the cash they didn’t realize he’d won riding bulls at professional rodeos. Eventually the word of his future career got out.
“I broke my leg two weeks before graduation in a bull riding," Sampson said. “They knew I was a cowboy because I walked across the stage on crutches.’’
There’s a reason Timex paid him to be part of the watch manufacturer’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking’’ campaign. Sampson, who stopped growing at 5-4, is regarded as one of the toughest bull riders in the history of the sport — part of a history that goes overlooked.
On the verge of winning the world title in 1982, Sampson experienced backlash.
“I would go into the bars and I would hang out and the white cowboys, they would look at me like, ‘Well you’re No. 1, but Myrtis Dightman should’ve won the world,' " Sampson recalled. “They said, ‘Myrtis Dightman, they screwed him so bad.' ’’
Dightman is the link to Charles Sampson and Mitchell.
In 1964, Dightman became the first Black cowboy to compete at National Finals Rodeo (NFR), where the bull riders vied for the world title. Depending on the circumstances.
Dightman said Freckles Brown, a famous white rider, once told him, “Just keep riding the bulls like you riding them and turn white.’’
With scoring in the hands of judges, a Black man faced an added handicap in those days. But when Dightman was competing in rodeos near Los Angeles, he met an aspiring Black cowboy who would break the barrier.
“It was just the good Lord’s will for me to meet Charlie Sampson," Dightman said.
He mentored the champion.
When Sampson competed near Dightman’s house near Houston, he stayed with Dightman and eventually started referring to him as “Dad." Although Dightman had all but retired from riding, he entered competitions when he had the chance to ride with Sampson.
“I got to ride with my hero,’’ Sampson said. “I told him there were times the cowboys would come up to me, the young cowboys, and say, “Charles, you just rode a badass bull and them judges, they cheated you.’
“He said, ‘Pee Wee, Charlie, don’t worry about that. Just keep your mouth shut and ride.'’’
Myrtis Dightman and stock contractor Dennis Davis. Photo: Dennis Davis. (Photo: Dennis Davis)
No judge could get him Sampson’s historic season in 1982. On the verge of winning the championship at the NFR, Dightman traveled to Oklahoma City at Sampson’s request to pull Sampson’s rope — a move in which the rider passes the tail of his bull rope to someone who pulls the rope tight.
“I wanted to cry,’’ Dightman said. “I thought I did something in this life that meant something."
Said Sampson: “It was a spiritual moment.’’
Dightman, 85, and Sampson, 63, are the only Black bull riders on the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. Almost four decades later, Sampson remains the only Black bull rider to win a world championship.
“It’s kind of sad,’’ said Mitchell.
In February 2019, at an event at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the PBR honored Sampson not far from the horse stables where he rode he ponies and met Dightman. That weekend, Sampson tracked down Mitchell, then a rookie who finished the year ranked 15th in the world.
“It was a pretty cool experience,’’ Mitchell said of meeting Sampson. “He just reached out to me and said he’d like to help out and do what he could to help me get to the next level.’’
In a sense, Sampson was doing for Mitchell what Dightman had done for Sampson.
"Myrtis really inspired me to be a better cowboy,’’ Sampson said. “I knew there was a day when I was going to be like Myrtis.’’
Mitchell said he won’t settle for a career that ends without his becoming the first Black rider since Sampson to win a world championship.
“I won’t see myself as part of history really until I win the world,’’ he said, but also added, “I think it’s a really cool thing that for another kid like me not to be discouraged about being a Black cowboy because they can actually see it.’’
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