FORT WORTH, Texas - An unassuming Matt Merritt was taking a walk alongside Matt West and Warren "Wazza" Matotek on their way to a photo shoot when an Australian Magpie approached them.
Neither Merritt nor West knew the small crow-like birds were known for being territorial when they turned to look to see which direction he was swooping in from. After making eye contact with the aggressive bird, which is commonly known to attack bicyclists, he swooped in at the back of Merritt's head.
Stunned and, perhaps, a bit more dazed than frightened, the 30-year-old from North Carolina couldn't help but joke about the experience, so naturally he added it to one of his already successful routines.
Merritt, who works as entertainer at numerous Touring Pro Division events throughout the southeast, namely those produced and promoted by three-time reigning Stock Contractor of the Year Jeff Robinson, was working PBR events in Australia for the past three weeks. He said his Magpie tale and the ensuing slow-motion dance routine to the theme from "Chariots of Fire" created quite a reaction from the sold-out crowd in Townsville, Australia.
"It was nice," said Merritt, of the near-standing ovation.
Matt Merritt and Matt West take a helicopter ride in Australia.
It was a small bull riding in Beverly, La., that would have otherwise long been forgotten, when Merritt first walked into an arena with his face painted. He was only 16 at the time.
Needless to say, the youngster from nearby Heflin, La., was nervous. It wasn't about being in the arena with bucking bulls that bothered him so much as not knowing what to expect in return from the crowd. Without even having so much as a microphone, much less a lack of experience, Merritt got a firsthand account of what it was like entertaining a live audience.
A few years later, he met Robinson at a small event in Georgia.
Merritt was just getting started and Robinson had not yet begun hauling bulls to Built Ford Tough Series events. They became fast friends and have kept in touch ever since. In 2013, Merritt will work upwards of 15 of Robinson's lower-level events from one coast to the other.
"He stumbled across me and I stumbled across him," said Merritt of the friendship and working relationship, "and it kind of makes for a pretty good deal."
"My social media kind of lit up over it."
In the past 14 years, Merritt has gained a much better understanding of what works and, naturally, what doesn't work so well - regardless of whether he's entertaining a raucous crowd at the Jerome Davis Invitational in Archdale, N.C., or a crowd of Australians at the Troy Dunn Invitational.
"You want to leave everything out there," said Merritt, who added one key to success is finding "your spots without interrupting the flow of the performance."
He likened entertaining to owing a restaurant.
"You leave and everyone's like, 'How is it? How was it?' I feel like I'm being judged the same way," he explained. "It won't be talked about unless it was great."
It was tough for Merritt being away from his young family, especially over Thanksgiving.
Merritt and his wife Bonnie, who he married in 2004, have two daughters, a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old. Bonnie and bull riding legend Mike White's wife Hannah are sisters. Their father, Mike Laws, is the man responsible for teaching J.B. Mauney how to ride bulls.
Merritt explained that it's one thing to leave on Thursday and return on Sunday, but this was the other side of the world.
Bullfighters Mitch Russell, Shane Simpson, along with Matt Merritt, bullfighter Darryl Chong and announcer Matt West at a PBR Australia event.
Merritt credited West with the opportunity for him to travel to Australia.
According to Merritt, it was West who mentioned him to Glen Young, who works with Troy and Jackie Dunn organizing the PBR Australian events. Merritt and Young then exchanged messages through Facebook - "the bathroom wall of the universe" - before eventually speaking by phone and solidifying arrangements.
Merritt and West, who regularly work the same TPD events in the U.S., spent a lot of down time together in Australia.
Merritt, who made sure to mention he was aware of the fact that any number of other entertainers could have been given the opportunity, said the shared experiences make for a good relationship in the arena.
Merritt worked all three Australian Cup Series events, while West worked the first two and then returned to the U.S. early, so that he could work last weekend's TPD event in Utah.
"It's a highlight," said Merritt, who went on to explain that since making the trip, "my social media kind of lit up over it. It's been a plus."
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
Matt Merritt signs autographs on the dirt after a PBR Australian Cup Series event.
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