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True Calling

5/13/2005

The story of Charles Sampson the bull rider is well documented, at least in rodeo circles.

An unknown black kid from Watts — a south central Los Angeles area known more for its 1965 deadly race riots than for producing cowboys — becomes an accomplished bull rider after first starting out riding ponies for a quarter at a carnival. After several years of escalating the ranks, he out-dueled seven-time world champion Donnie Gay in 1982 to win the world title, becoming professional rodeo's first African-American champion.

He later endured crippling injuries, seemingly one after another, until he rode his last bull in 1994. Two years later, Sampson was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After that, the story of Charles Sampson the bull rider ends.

That's when Sampson had to search for his next life. He tried his hand at producing bull riding events, volunteer work with the YMCA, even motivational speaking and ventures in construction and car dealerships.

His heart, though, wasn't in the right place.

Late last year, Sampson found his place, his new calling, on a farm in eastern New York. It's not an ordinary farm. This kid from the projects is quite literally a world away from where he started, spending his days riding horses and mentoring troubled youth at the Berkshire Farm Center and Service for Youth.

The facility, located in tiny Canaan, N.Y., is a statewide non-profit social service organization with a 116-year history of success working with at-risk children and their families.

"I dedicated over half of my life to rodeo," Sampson, 48, said. "The day came where I had no more desire to ride. You have to find your next niche in life. I had to try to find a way to keep my heart flowing. I've found it at Berkshire Farm. When I give back, it makes me feel good. This is my life after rodeo."

While Sampson is a world champion bull rider, he isn't there to impress that upon the nearly 300 adolescents he comes in contact with daily. Whether it's riding horses or just shooting the bull, so to speak, Sampson wants to provide the kids with a solid foundation and hopefully a regained sense of confidence and self worth.

Perhaps he appreciates his opportunity because he himself went down the same road. His parents separated and later divorced before Sampson was a teenager. While he didn't consider himself a troublemaker, he was without a father figure during a critical time of his life. His mother raised him, and as Sampson went to work mucking stalls and later learning how to rope and ride, he found himself under the wing of many stable hands and cowboys showing him the ropes.

"Luckily, I did have someone like me," Sampson said. "When I was growing up, I had nothing but older adults, showing me right from wrong. They molded me into person I am."

Now, it's his turn to be the teacher.

"They know I'm a cowboy, but they don't know who I am," Sampson said. "With the horse program, I get them to see how I relate with animals and work together with the troubles within themselves. I mainly just visit with them and show them life skills.

"We just bond, and that feels good. We don't talk about their past history. We talk about how great of a day it is that day."

At Berkshire Farm, Sampson lives his motto, "Every day is a great day."

Given his past record as a bull rider, perhaps he feels no other choice but to embrace the present.

He barely survived a 1983 trampling at an exhibition rodeo for then President Ronald Reagan that landed Sampson in the intensive care unit for eight days. He also carries the battle scars of a ripped off ear suffered in Reno, Nev., in 1988, several facial lacerations, a left leg that is held together by 17 pins and two metal plates and torn ligaments in the knee on the same leg.

That's not all. He's also suffered a crushed sternum, broken ribs, a shattered wrist and a litany of other injuries that amounted to medical bills he paid for well into retirement. Even today, he still feels the results of those days.

Through video, Sampson is able to look back on some of the wrecks that should have put him out for good. But he kept coming back. Perhaps that's why Timex chose him to endorse the watch that "takes a licking, but keeps on ticking."

"People ask me how I survived those wrecks, and I tell them that I don't have a clue," Sampson said. "They ask me why I keep riding after I get hurt. I was on my deathbed, and I walked away. I guess God didn't want me to quit."

Sampson's new challenge as mentor carries many of the same potential pitfalls as when he rode bulls. At 5-foot-3, he can be towered over by some of the adolescents who are sent to this farm by court-appointed orders.

And he looks forward to stepping up to the challenge.

"I want to give them discipline, and deep down, they want that," Sampson said. "They might be 15 years old and stand 6 feet tall and weigh 200 pounds, but to me, they're still babies. Their job is to see what they can get away with, and I have to put them in check.

"I want to show them a different approach on how to deal with people, and working with them helps me get on top of my game every day. It's fun just telling stories, to see the light in their eyes. I guess now I'm getting the chance to fulfill God's dream of what he wants from me now. That's to give back to our youth."

The story of Charles Sampson the mentor is well under way. After 15 years in the spotlight, he won't mind if this script plays without much fanfare.