What does it take to be a bull rider? Lunacy helps Sykesville resident is nuts about rodeo


SYKESVILLE -- What would you call a man who finds it fun to jump on bucking bulls or chase them around a pen?

"A certified, card-carrying lunatic," said Timothy D. Johnson, a winner in the 1992 Bullmania contest in Harrisburg, Pa. "You've got to be nuts to do it."

Yet that's the consuming passion of Johnson, 30, who lives in Sykesville. He makes his living as an elephant keeper at the Baltimore Zoo, but he runs to rodeos from Texas to Vermont whenever he can.

"I'll beg, steal or borrow to get to a rodeo, and there's not a vehicle in the family that I haven't driven at least once to get there," he said with a laugh. "I'm addicted to it."

Luckily, his family is very supportive of the bug that bit him when he met John Williams Jr. of New Windsor in elementary school.

"He and his dad were learning to be team ropers, so we just started hanging around the roping pen," Johnson said. "Then, when I was about 13 or 14, they put in some bull chutes and we started to get on them.

"I started to go to rodeos, and I wanted to ride real bad."

The expense of keeping a horse, a truck and a trailer made roping out of the question.

So, Johnson turned to riding bucking bulls and entered his first contest at the Timonium State Fairgrounds in 1980, three weeks after he graduated from South Carroll High School.

"I got stepped on," he said, recalling that first ride. "But I stayed on for seven seconds, and you only have to stay on for eight."

Johnson's "mentor for life" is Keith Eisley, a rodeo rider who taught him how to fight bulls. "Fighting" is the term for the duties of the clown who protects fallen riders from being trampled.

"I just kept bugging Keith about when he was going to have a school so I could learn how to fight bulls," Johnson said, adding that Eisley finally offered a school at the Diamond I Ranch in Reedville, N.C., in the fall of 1981.

" 'You'll get hooked [caught on the bull's horn] the first day and then I won't see you the second,' he told me," Johnson said. "But I stayed the whole weekend."

In fact, a twist of fate earned Johnson a plaque for the most-improved student that weekend.

One lesson, which Johnson had a difficult time with, was grabbing the animal and turning him around.

Eisley told him he had to learn the skill, sending him out to "play" with the bull one last time.

"Well, my hand slipped, the bull's horn got caught under my suspender and he starts clocking around to the left," Johnson said. "I couldn't get away from the bull, and Keith thought I was turning him myself.

"He just kept yelling, 'That's it! Stay with him!' "

The schooling earned him his first job protecting cowboys during a rodeo, and he's been riding and fighting ever since.

Dressed in spandex running tights, oversized jeans, cleats, a shirt and suspenders, Johnson works to steer angry bulls away from riders stunned from hitting the ground.

His efforts earned him first place in April's Bullmania contest.

"I like to fight better, because you don't get hurt as much," John son said. "But you get paid to take a hooking. If anyone should get hooked, it should be the fighter."

Johnson also admits that the thrill of the rodeo makes it hard to keep a regular job. Rodeos can run for days, and there's always another to enter when one is finished.

"Guys who rodeo joke that they're too lazy to work and too nervous to steal," he said. "When you start winning, you start to think, 'Why go to a regular job when in a good weekend I can earn the kind of money other guys make in a week?' "

Plus, the thrill of staying on a bull keeps a rider coming back.

"It's more fun than a man should be allowed to have," he said. "You get addicted to the adrenalin rush, and it's pretty tough to quit."

But Johnson said he never encourages youngsters to follow in his footsteps, unless he's sure they really want to ride.

"Kids follow me around saying they want to get on a bull, and I say, 'No, you don't,' " Johnson said. "Everybody rides for their own reasons, but you have to ride for yourself. To impress people or to do it for a boyfriend or a girlfriend are all the worst reasons."

It's also an uncertain way to make a living, so Johnson has been working for 3 1/2 years at the Baltimore Zoo.

Working with four full-grown African elephants every day -- including a male who's eager to mate -- provides its own type of thrills, Johnson said.

"If I'd have known it's as dangerous as it is, I would have thought longer about it," he said. "The danger factor is about the same [as in rodeo riding]."

Three out of four days in the past three weeks, the male -- who is constantly caged -- has charged the bars and swung at him as the keepers walked by.

And just last Wednesday, he got caught between a charging female and another one during their daily demonstration.

"When you've got 10,000 pounds of elephant running at you, it doesn't take much to wipe you out," Johnson said, comparing it FTC to the 1,800-pound bulls he teases for fun.

"Especially with the males, they're waiting for people to make a mistake."

Preparing for the future, Johnson has started to breed bucking bulls and is grooming several young animals on some property he owns with his brother.

But Johnson says he'll stay with the rodeo circuit.

"When I can't ride bulls anymore, I'll just start roping," he said. "I'm going to rodeo until I'm too old to do it anymore."

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