Former Woodbine Resident Isn't Just Horsing Around

PEOPLE OF MERIT

Professional Rodeo Athlete Rides To Bareback Championship

August 11, 1991|By Dolly Merritt

John Schirra has had his share hard knocks. But a few broken bones here and there have never kept him from dusting himself off and getting back on his horse -- or bull.

Schirra, a 24-year-old professional rodeo athlete, passed through Woodbine earlier this month to visit his family -- his mother and stepfather, Dale and Mark Soper, and his21-year-old brother, Wes -- and friends.

Schirra, a former Glenelg High School student who is now a seniorat Texas A&M University, had just enough time to sleep in his own bed during a long weekend before hitting the rodeo trail again.

The next week would take him to a string of rodeos in Valparaiso, Ind.; McLouth, Kan.; Goshen, Ind.; and Iron River, Mich.

A sign proclaiming "Congratulations John Schirra" welcomed him from the bulletin board of the Lisbon fire hall and was a pleasant surprise for the westernized easterner.

The message referred to the title he earned in June as National Reserve Champion Bareback Rider during the National Rodeo Finals in Bozman, Mont.

"It's nice to know someone is pulling for you," said Schirra with a western-acquired twang.

Schirra, a senior majoring in animal science, is a member of his university's rodeo team. The championship earned the school $1,400 in scholarship money -- presented in his name -- and earned Schirra $600.

He also boasts a silver-and-gold belt buckle inscribed with the words, "SouthernRegion Champion Bareback Rider," a trophy won during the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association competition in May.

True, Schirra prefers button-downs from Jos. A. Bank to the western-style shirts ofhis fellow rodeo pals. And it's easier to envision him running a marathon than riding a bucking bull.

In fact, he was on the junior varsity track and wrestling teams when he attended Glenelg High.

ButSchirra says those days seem far away.

The bareback rider grew upon a horse farm in Woodbine, where his stepfather appraises thoroughbreds and shoes horses.

Schirra's interest in rodeo began in his early teens when he saw his first rodeo at the Timonium fairgrounds.

"The rodeo was something different. I wanted to know what was goingon," he said.

That curiosity has never subsided.

Schirra signed a contract with a "Wild West show" before his high school graduation six years ago -- "I lied about my lack of experience" when filling out the job application, he recalls.

But before joining the show, Schirra moved west to learn all he could about rodeo bareback riding.Before long he was in numerous rodeo competitions that took him to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The Wild West show required him to ride bucking horses during each nightly performance.

"The first year I got thrown off of everything," he laughed. "I wasn't having any success, but I was doing it. I went through the school of hardknocks."

But as the knocks grew harder, so did Schirra's determination to learn.

After a summer's worth of performances with the Wild West show and continuous rodeo competitions, Schirra returned to Woodbine in October, but it was too late for him to enter school.

At his parents' suggestion, he took a job for the winter on a cattle ranch in New Mexico, where a family friend was a ranch foreman.

He continued ranch work until 1987, when he enrolled in a community college in Cheyenne, Wyo. The school's rodeo team let him ride horses andbulls in competitions.

He later transferred to Northwest Community College, in Powell, Wyo., where the coach was renowned for riding bucking horses, Schirra said.

"I stayed there for a year, honed my skills and realized that I could make a living entering rodeo competitions," he said. Becoming adept in rodeos is "just a matter of time, experience and getting on more horses."

He now spends most of his time on the road, so far having traveled to every state except Oregon, Washington, Florida, Alaska and Hawaii.

"I love to travel. I am in a different city every night for rodeos," he said.

When he isn't traveling, he hangs his hat in Powell, "the hub of Powell Valley, Wyo., with a population of 6,000. You can do anything you want out there. You can shoot rabbits any time you want, drive 80 to 85 miles an hour. It's the last bastion of free society," he said.

Schirra hasentered a string of rodeo competitions in which he has either placedin the finals or won -- no small accomplishment for an easterner whodidn't begin competing until he was 18.

"A lot of guys (on the rodeo circuit) have more respect because I started late, when I was 18.For others, it's a lot harder for them to swallow," he said.

Now a member of the Professional Rodeo Association, Schirra says he is constantly learning, and that if he had it to do over again, he would have gone to professional rodeo schools to learn the basics, rather than "doing it the hard way."

"Everyone in the east who is interested in rodeo has a severe disadvantage. Out west, people grow up going to rodeos instead of baseball games," he said.

Nonetheless, this eastern neophyte is proving that west isn't always best as he continues to climb toward the top of the rodeo circuit.

"My goals are to finish up school and either concentrate on being a world champion, or strive toward making it among the national top 15 (rodeo athletes)," Schirra said.

His advice to aspiring riders is this: "It's a cold,cruel world out there. I did everything wrong before I did anything right. Remember, things don't happen overnight."

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