Everyday People

The loss of a leg helped motivate RJ Shirey to excel in life.

RJ Shirey in tree

Name RJ Shirey

Hometown State College, Pa.

Claim to fame Thriving after losing a leg in a hunting accident.

Favorite Subject Counterterrorism

Hobbies Fishing, video games, and rock climbing—especially the IM Building’s 40-foot wall.

Robert “RJ” Shirey knows he’s lucky to have survived an accidental gunshot wound while hunting with his father in 2016. After bypass surgery and two weeks in the hospital, followed by an amputation above the right knee and months of rehab—he endured 120 sessions of physical therapy—the State College native walked back into high school with a prosthetic leg and crutch. During recovery, Shirey played video games to trick his brain into relieving phantom pains of losing a limb. Now 20 and in the College of Information, Science, and Technology, he still loves gaming: He was on a competitive eSports team at Penn State.

As a member of Penn State’s Ability Athletics program, Shirey broke national records in javelin and shot put. Although the 2020 season was paused due to the pandemic, he’s training now with Paralympic qualification in mind.

Shirey acted as a body double for an unreleased short movie called New Girl, which was filmed outside Pittsburgh in 2019.

The security and risk analysis major envisions a career in government or health care—he’s already working part-time for a company that teaches care for traumatic injuries. “They’ll know what to do in an emergency situation versus just hoping for the best,” says Shirey. “I lost my leg, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else has to.”

Shirey has learned about the power of perspective from State College native Adam Hartswick, a combat medic who lost his legs in Afghanistan, whom he considers a mentor. Shirey is intent on strengthening his body and mind, especially during the pandemic: In addition to his virtual IST classes, he spent the past year working out with a trainer, fishing, and rock climbing.