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Tuesday, November 11, 1997

Bull rider paved way for blacks in rodeo arena

By ANDY SMITH Conroe Courier

CONROE, Texas - Myrtis Dightman never liked riding bulls.

But he loved a challenge. And for a black cowboy competing on the pro rodeo circuit in the 1960s, challenges were a dime a dozen.

Looking back, it would be easy for Dightman to be bitter about the injustices he endured chasing a world championship he would never win.

But Dightman just smiles when he talks about the days he spent pounding the highways between rodeo arenas.

"Rodeo is like the Army," he says. "You get to travel all over the place and meet some nice people."

In 1966, Dightman became the first black cowboy to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo. The following year, Dightman finished third in the bull riding world standings, as close as he ever came to a world title. From 1966 to 1972, Dightman missed qualifying for the NFR only once.

Now at 62, Dightman's achievements finally got the full recognition they deserve. Last month he became the first living black cowboy inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

For the past 10 years Dightman has been working for Bill and Billie George at the American Hat Co. in Conroe. He operates a fork lift, mows the grass, supervises warehouse operations and does "just about anything that needs to get done," according to Bill George.

Dightman splits his time between homes in Houston and Crockett. He works at the hat company four days a week.

Dightman has been compared to Jackie Robinson. Although he wasn't the first black to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, he was the first serious contender for the world title.

His career helped pave the way for black cowboys who followed, including Charles Sampson, a bull rider who became the first black cowboy to win a world championship in 1982.

"As far as cowboys go, Myrtis Dightman is my hero," Sampson said in a telephone interview from his home in Denver.

Sampson was on hand for Dightman's induction.

Dightman's relationship with Sampson dates back to the early 1970s when Sampson was a skinny teenager living in Los Angeles.

Sampson remembers tracking Dightman down at a local rodeo and showing a picture of himself riding a steer.

"Myrtis said, 'That's a good-looking picture but I recommend you stay in school.' "

Sampson, who had no intention of dropping out, thought it was an odd comment, but it provided some powerful insight into Dightman's belief that hard work and dedication can overcome anything.

From that point on Sampson hung out at the bucking chutes anytime Dightman was in town, watching how he limbered up and mentally prepared for a bull ride.

Years later when Sampson became a professional rodeo cowboy, the two often traveled together.

"I've had a lot of old white cowboys come up to me and tell me he got the worst shaft in the world, that he should have been a world champion," Sampson said.

"I heard all these stories about how tough it was for Myrtis to win, how the judges cheated him and how he couldn't get into a rodeo. But he never talked about those things. All he ever said was, Ride hard, try hard and enter as many rodeos as you can."

Dightman doesn't dwell on the hardships, but he will discuss them in a matter-of-fact manner.

Dightman spent more than one night sleeping in the back seat of his Impala rather than risk being turned away from a hotel.

And there were a few unscrupulous stock contractors who assigned him the meanest bulls, then made him wait until spectators had left the stands before letting him make his ride.

Once in Little Rock a gateman wouldn't let him and another black bull rider through the gate to get to the chutes.

"I told him we were contestants but he didn't believe me because the rodeo had started two days ago and he said we should have been there before," Dightman said. "But I had been riding in another rodeo, which I did a lot back then. Luckily there was a bulldogger named Whitter Combs who came to our rescue. He told the guy at the gate to let us in. When I got there they had turned my bull out. But the rodeo secretary believed my story and I got to ride. I took second place."

Dightman says the white cowboys were always good to him. "We always got along real good," he said.

Once he asked his white friend Freckles brown what it would take for him to win the world title.

Brown told him: "Keep riding a bull like you've been riding and turn white."

But Dightman says he worried more about bulls than prejudice.

He knocked heads with a bull once during a ride in Tucson. The injury left him with 15 stitches and knot so big he couldn't get his hat on. But it didn't keep him from riding in a rodeo in Houston the next day.

Dightman looks like he could still climb on the back of a bull today. Amazingly, he was riding bulls into his 50s on an old-timer circuit.

Dightman didn't even get on a bull until he was 25. He spent his early days as a bull fighter, better known as rodeo clowns.

Then he noticed how few blacks were riding in rodeo events and decided to try his hand at bull riding.

His talent was pure and the money was so good, that Dightman found himself unable to walk away from the sport.

"I never like to ride bulls," he said. "I guess it was a God-given talent. The money was good but pride was involved too. I never asked stock contractors what the bull would do. I just got on 'em and see if I could ride 'em."

Dightman still rides horses everyday and is willing to help any young kid who has an interest in rodeo. He visits schools urging children to stay in school and shun drugs.

Meanwhile Dightman has no plans to retire from his job with American Hat Co. anytime soon.

"I still feel good. I'll work as long as I can. I enjoy working for Mr. Bill and Mrs. Billie. They've been real good to me. They're my backbone."

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