Tuesday, March 31, 2009

   Charlie Sampson, World Champion, won Cow Palace three times. 

I am a fan of Rodeo. I grew up on it, although none of my immediate family rode in an actual Rodeo. As I live just thirty minutes East of San Francisco I was walking the halls of the Cow Palace as a young girl. Every year we'd go to the Grand National Rodeo and Livestock Exposition. Man, it was something! On opening night every horse organization in all of California would bring its Color Guard to the Rodeo and ride in the opening ceremonies. The arena was 250' by 155', surrounded by bleacher seating. Draped in flags, and full of smoke and dust, the place resounded with the sounds of excited people. You could hear the clang and moan of the bulls in the chutes and beyond the exits. Every one would ride in - four abreast- holding American flags, California flags, their club flags and their affiliated flags. Then the house lights would go out leaving the whole cavernous Palace in darkness. A blinding white spotlight would blaze out, hitting a rotating ball of mirrors, the light fractured into a million bits sending blue shards of light circling the arena- and the place went wild! Horses spooked, whirled, bucked and riders fought for control. Sometimes someone would be thrown and the whole thing would get even more exciting as the loose horse was caught. 

Finally all the Color Guard riders would exit and a drum roll began. Bob Tallman- the Voice of the Cow Palace- came on and introduced the young lady that would be Queen of the Cow Palace. She'd ride out fast, circling the arena at top speed. Sometimes her horse would throw her too!  I wanted to be Queen. I knew I rode better than any of those girls. There was plenty of excitement at the Cow Palace and the show hadn't even begun yet. I could recount story after story- wrecks, famous rides and famous horses. I never missed a year.
I was lucky enough to see many of the greats- Don Gay, Larry Mahan, Jim Shoulders, Lane Frost, and Charlie Sampson. I mention him because he was a spectacular rider, a black American and one the first men to ride with protective gear. 
You see Charlie Sampson broke almost every bone in his face, and not just once. The times I saw him ride, he rode in a lacrosse helmet, much like the one pictured below. He also rode with a neck roll. At the time we thought it was a weird thing to do. Cowboys didn't have protective gear! They gutted up and rode with popping eyeballs, and broken, flopping limbs. But Charlie did it. And he was respected for it. And now many cowboys do it too. 

The cowboys of today are tough,good looking and fairly savvy. But it wern't always that-a way. It took men like Charlie Sampson to lead the way.