Bill Pickett was to rodeo cowboys who were not allowed to compete at the highest level because of narrow-mindedness what Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston were to their brethren in baseball. Which is why there is a rodeo named for him in which all the cowboys are Black.
This year’s was Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden. Those who arrived early were serenaded by The Gap Band making spurs jangle with “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” over the loudspeakers. You don’t get that during Cheyenne’s Frontier Days.
Bill Pickett’s fame predated that of the aforementioned Negro League ballplayers. His father, Thomas Jefferson Pickett, was a slave. So was Bill’s wife, Maggie.
Pickett would become a star attraction in a Wild West show featuring Buffalo Bill Cody, Will Rogers and Tom Mix. His specialty was bulldogging, which evolved into the traditional rodeo event of steer wrestling: He’d pursue a steer on horseback before taking a flying leap and pinning it to the ground.
But only after biting the steer on the lip.
Tre Hosley, a bareback rider from hardscrabble Compton, California, was asked if he had ever bitten a steer on the lip or so much as greeted one with a fist bump.
“Can’t say that I have,” he said. “But I’ve definitely been in a wrestling match with some of those steers. I can see why he might have taken that route.”
Stability in the stables
Like most kids from the inner city who turn to sports as sanctuary and refuge from crime-ridden streets, Hosley thought his route to a better life might run through football. He was a defensive back and kick returner at Long Beach Jordan High, which has produced myriad sports stars (as well as Bob Denver, who played Gilligan on “Gilligan’s Island”).
Though he was exposed to horses and horse culture at an early age — his grandfather rode, and his dad kept horses in an area of Compton zoned for agriculture called Richland Farms — Hosley said his primary focus was football and beating archrival Long Beach Poly, which has produced dozens of NFL players.
Still, he found time to ride on weekends. Sometimes curious football teammates would join him.
“I kind of found myself wanting to be at the stables a little more than I did at practice,” he said about getting on a wheezing Greyhound bus with Patrick Liddell, a buddy from Watts, and traveling 32 hours to National Finals Rodeo cowboy Clint Cannon’s riding school in Texas.
“I wasn’t in the greatest position financially. It was one of those deals where you really had to want it.”
A way out
Hosley wanted it enough to have made a few thousand dollars riding broncs on the PRCA circuit. But he’ll soon be 28 and realizes that earning his way to the NFR as Cannon did probably is beyond his reach.
“As far as the top 15 in the world, I am more athletic than those guys in most every other area (except) they have been riding bareback horses for so long,” Hosley said. “Now I just want to show the next generation of (inner city cowboys) that this is an avenue you can take to get out.”
The grim statistics suggest that more kids from Compton will wind up dead or doing time than becoming football or hip-hop stars. Where he comes from, one is not exclusive of the other. Hosley mentioned the rapper, activist and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, whom he greatly admired and in 2019 was gunned down not far from the stables where Hosley learned about horses.
“Anything positive can keep a guy above water and avoid a jail cell. Find a mentor, that was my biggest thing,” Hosley said of the advice he’d give to youngsters hoping to join Charlie Sampson and Fred Whitfield as Black champions in today’s modern and more accessible rodeo.
But you don’t have to earn a gold buckle — or even bite a steer on the lip — to find a calling through the cowboy lifestyle, Hosley said in using a catchphrase to which Bill Pickett might have related.
“This can take kids from hard places into better places.”