President Reagan, a rodeo buff, hosted the PRCA in Landover, Md., where it put on an exhibition on Sept. 24, 1983, a gesture that had a double-edged effect on the bull riding picture. First, it brought Gay out of retirement. He worked himself into shape, got the O.K. from his physician, taped himself up and began practicing on some of his father's bulls.
But the Landover exhibition had another, terrifying, ramification. During the performance, Sampson, a black cowboy from Los Angeles and then the reigning World Bull Riding Champion, was jerked face-first into the back of the bull's head, shattering every bone in his face. "I knew he was hurt bad before he hit the ground," recalls Gay. Sampson, unconscious, was rushed to a hospital, where he was operated on for six hours. No one was concerned whether he would ride again—the hope was that he'd live.
Sampson was in the hospital three weeks. Then, less than two months later, he donned a lacrosse helmet and rode seven out of 10 bulls in the 1983 NFR. He won more than $15,000. "He set new parameters for pain tolerance in our sport," says McDonald.
Sampson, who shed his helmet last March, arrived in Oklahoma City trailing Gay by $10,288, with the possibility of winning almost $50,000 at the NFR. After a fast start, Gay had slowed down late in the year, the victim, he felt, of a new PRCA rule that limits competitors to 100 rodeos a year. "The real reason they put that 100-rodeo rule in was that people were tired of seeing Roy Cooper and me win," Gay, no shrinking violet, says. But Dr. Evans saw the 100-rodeo limit as a blessing in disguise for Gay. "If Donnie had tried to rodeo like he did before, I don't believe his groin would have held up," Evans says. (The rule has been changed again, however, to allow 125 rodeos for rough-stock competition, so Gay will still have a chance to overdo it.)
So there it was. Two little guys, Nos. 1 and 2 in the bull riding standings, who'd battled back from injuries—one life-threatening, one merely career-threatening. Everyone was pulling for both of them. Everyone, that is, except the bulls. Rodeo isn't man against man; it's man against animal, and man against himself, which may be why all these guys are such great pals.
And in this particular rodeo, the bulls were having the better of it. In his first eight rides, Gay was bucked off twice, tied once for first and scored one third. Sampson, meanwhile, had been slam-dunked to the turf six times, but he'd won the go-round on both bulls he'd ridden. With two bulls left he was behind Gay by less than $8,000. As Sampson sat on Hesston, staring down at those big widow-making horns, he knew that 85 points then and a win again on Sunday might possibly wrest the title from Gay.
As the gate swung open Hesston made one great leap into the arena and began spinning to the right, slinging his head back in an effort to hook Sampson off his back. "He made a little fake move to the left," Sampson said later, "and then went back right." The move caught Sampson leaning, and he was slingshotted to the ground three seconds before the whistle. The clowns moved in, and Sampson scrambled to safety. Gay, too far ahead now for anyone to catch, had won his eighth world title. He ended up with $77,326.68 for the year.
Gay's father, Neal, ran over and hugged him; it was the fastest anyone had seen Neal move in years. Next came Shoulders, grinning and shaking Gay's hand. Gay had been to Shoulders's bull riding school when he was a kid. What the hay, it was just like keeping the record in the family.
Later, in the bull riders' dressing room, Bobby Del Vecchio, the Bronx-born bull rider, came up to Gay and grabbed him. "I didn't think I'd ever hear myself say it," Del Vecchio said, "but you're the best-bleeping-bull rider ever."