A Jersey Shore native will be among the standouts to watch when the American Finals Rodeo returns to Boardwalk Hall 7 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20 and 21.

Atlantic City will host the championship for the second straight year, as the AFR celebrates its 40th anniversary. This weekend’s shows will serve as the season-ending finale of the American Professional Rodeo Association. Only the Top 12 contestants in each of eight events qualified for A.C. through points garnered on the APRA circuit that started in April. Events include team roping, tie-down roping, breakaway roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling, bull riding, saddle bronc riding and bareback riding.

Troy Musser earned Team Roping Rookie of the Year honors for 2017, and will be making his Atlantic City rodeo debut. He hails from the Jersey Shore — which is actually an oddly named borough in Pennsylvania on the banks of the Susquehanna River. It’s roughly 260 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The town got its name from settlers who moved there from New Jersey to own farmland after the Revolutionary War.

“I tell people I’m from Jersey Shore and they think I’m near you guys in Atlantic City, but really we’re in the middle of Pennsylvania about six hours away,” says Musser, who does have local ties to the area as a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Cape May.

The route Musser took to earning the rookie-of-the-year title was unusual and unlikely. A successful businessman who ran his own construction company, Musser retired from the corporate world to chase the other half of his American dream. He hired the best instructors and immersed himself in the rodeo world he dreamed of participating in since he was a kid.

“This is what I wanted to do my whole life, but usually the guys who earn rookie-of-the-year are in their 20s and started in this lifestyle when they were 5 or 6 years old,” Musser says. “I’m 52 and started 10 months ago, after retiring last November. For me to earn rookie-of-the-year and qualify for the American Finals Rodeo is almost unheard of.”

He achieved the feat largely by enlisting the services of Texas native Joe Beaver, an eight-time roping champion who operates clinics and private instruction out of Buck Daniels Ranch in Okeechobee, Florida. He also teamed with Ty Parkinson, an Australian on a five-year work visa to compete on the American rodeo circuit, and is widely considered one of the best cowboys to ever come from the Land Down Under.

“I was told by so many people you can’t do this at your age, but I bought the best horses, hired the best help and basically roped 12 hours a day from January until the tour started (in April),” Musser says. “Having Joe Beaver in your corner is like having Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a NASCAR instructor, or Joe Montana in football.”

Musser admits that rodeo is a tough way to make a living, and that travel expenses usually outweigh any prize money he might earn at stops along the tour — money that is in no way guaranteed. But he and many other professional rodeo competitors do it sheerly for the love of the lifestyle.

And every dollar Musser does earn from the rodeo circuit he donates to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

“I came from a single mom and a fairly low-income home, but I’m fortunate to have made it pretty big in the corporate world,” Musser says. “Now I’m doing what I love to do and, in turn, helping out an organization that can really use it.”

The best of the best

Ty Parkinson, Troy Musser’s partner in team roping — which is the only event of the eight sanctioned by the American Professional Rodeo Association that allows men and women to compete together — is among the leaders to claim the All-Around Cowboy title at the American Finals Rodeo. Another strong contender for that honor is Bump Postlethwait, the defending All-Around champ and the winner of that title in three of the last four years.

Leading the All-Around Cowgirl standings coming into A.C. is Dusti Stockton. Women compete in team roping, barrel racing and breakaway roping.

“The all-around titles are earned by those who compete in multiple events, and the points they earn on tour stops throughout the year are combined to determine the all-around titles,” says Chris Kelley, vice president of the APRA. “We have contestants who compete nearly all year long, but our season is primarily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and encompasses stops up and down the East Coast and the Mid-Atlantic states.”

The APRA was formed in 1972 and is based in Lancaster County, Pa. The family-friendly American Finals Rodeo was established in 1977.

“This year is special in that it’s our 40th anniversary, and we’re excited to be back in Atlantic City,” Kelley says.