Cheerleading doesn’t get a lot of respect. People don’t know the work that goes into it. The hours spent on flexibility and strength training to get those jumps right, to do those incredible lifts, to throw someone in the air, and make sure they are caught safely. The hours spent working so that routine looks effortless.
I should know. I entered cheerleading at the tender age of 8 years old on a pop warner pom pom squad. My last game I cheered was the Dartmouth-Princeton football game my senior year of college. Through injuries, through weight issues, through everything I cheered. Once that bug has bit you, it’s a part of you. Cheerleading truly required you to be a team player. You literally put your lives in each other’s hands, you have to work together or someone gets hurt. There is a bond that never breaks with cheerleading. When I cheered my last game, I cried many tears because I knew this was truly it, I was done, I would never cheer again. Even today I will often cry, watching cheerleaders and thinking about how much I would miss it, how much I would give anything to go back and do it again.
Then, one year ago there was an event announcement on Facebook. Two alumni from my high school were working with an organization called OT to put together a full contact, all alumni team football game between our school and our rival high school. Proceeds from the event would go to the youth sports organizations in both towns. They were looking for players and cheerleaders who wanted to participate. Could it be possible? Could it be real? Could I possibility cheer one more time?
I contacted the alumnus putting together the squad and she agreed to let me train remotely. I joined a secret Facebook group, and the girls shared videos of the routines they were putting together. They were going all out. Sidelines, sign cheers, a brand new Hello cheer for this game, and a half time routine with a choreographed dance and lifts. While the girls meet weekly, I would use the videos to practice a little every night at home, so I could step right in. One of the cheerleaders took me on, and would watch my videos, help me fine tune the routines, and answer any questions I had. When I decided to join, lets just say I was far from my past cheerleading weight and strength. I joined a Beachbody group so I could lose some weight and increase my strength and endurance. Then I bought a plane ticket, and prayed that I would be able to actually do this.
The day arrived to leave for NJ, and I nervously boarded, excited to get to NJ. I was coming 2 days before the big game. I had only 2 practices with the girls (and only 1 where we were all available). I had never trained this way before. Would it work?
Thursday I walked to our practice location and met the girls, some for the first time. We chatted, and then got down to the business of practice. They spent some time showing me where I was to stand during the dance and cheers, helping me know where I fit in routines that had sequences, and helping me fine tune my movements. Once that was down we did many, many many run throughs. Finally, we did one full routine with jumps, lifts and tumbles, and recorded it. I watched it, and…it was completely on-point. It had worked. I was able to step right in and no one would notice I had not actually be here for the past months with the other girls.
The Friday before, the team had it’s traditional spaghetti dinner, a event intended for the football team to carb up and bond before the game. I got to see people I hadn’t in a long time, all surprised to see that I flew all the way out from California to be a part of this amazing event. There was honoring of a coach who had been the coach at Keyport for 30 years, leading them to 6 state championships. And videos from past elite players who could not be there for one reason or another. Afterward, the cheerleading team went through our big routines one more time, and went home to try and sleep.
The next morning I got dressed, did my hair and make-up, and headed over to one of the team-member’s house. We stretched, did some practice runs, then loaded up in a mini-van to go to the game.
We arrived at the field over 2 hours early and already, we saw a line. The players had sold out of the 2,500 tickets they had been given. There was a line waiting for the last 500 tickets that would be sold at the gate. We got in and immediately set up our cheer area, decorated the stands, and touched up our make-up and uniforms. Then we saw the Keansburg cheerleaders lining up near the field entrance. It was almost game time, time to start.
We cheered the team onto the field, then went back to set up and get ready for the start of the game. After a few chants and the star spangled banner, we did the Hello cheer for the crowd. They were all excited and watched the show, and applauded afterward. Then we went over to the Keansburg side to do the cheer in front of their crowd. They were very polite (given how intense this rivalry is), and we made it back to our side with no trouble.
During the 1st and 2nd quarter, there were numerous sidelines and dances. We did a great job of keeping the crowd excited. Unfortunately, the team was not doing so well on the field and we went into halftime down 18-0. Once the team left the field, the announcer called our name, and we ran out to do our half time routine. I was nervous. I was center, right on the 50 yard line. We looked out to a crowd of over 1,500 on our side, and more behind us. Then the music came on….to low for us to hear. That was annoying, we had to ask them to restart once he got the volume right. Grrr…
Then the music came on, and muscle memory kicked in. As the basket toss* went up behind me, I heard that sound. My favorite sound, the sound I lived for cheering. It’s the sound of the entire crowd gasping as they watch an difficult stunt go up with ease. It was amazing. I felt 18 again.
After the dance, there was great applause and we ran off the field in excitement, relief and quite frankly exhaustion. We weren’t teenagers anymore, that minute and a half took everything I had! After the dance was over, my nerves eased up and I realized I had not eaten all day. My dad got me a hot dog and I spent half-time catching up with classmates and other town friends. Then I went back to cheer for the last half.
The last half was blur, mostly because the football team continued to go downhill. We did at least get on the board and make one touchdown. We tried to rally the crowd, but they were resigned at that point. The game ended with us loosing 32-6. We threw together a quick “We are proud of you” chant, then went out to the field for presentations. While the Keyport side was disappointed, everyone acknowledged and thanked the two Keyport players who put so much work into putting the event together. OT announced that ~$7,000 had been raised for Keyport youth sports and $13,000 for Keansburg youth sports. After the presentations and thanks, there was lots of picture taking by families, and it was off to home and the afterparty. As I walked to my Dad’s car I began limping more and more. My hip and knee were killing me, and now that I was standing still I began to realize it. Sure I was in better shape than 6 months ago, but I was no longer in the shape I was in in college. I couldn’t wait to get home to my bottle of iburprofen.
I rallied later to go out and
drown our sorrows drink to a successful charity event. I caught up with old friends and thanked the cheerleaders for all their help. Then I came home and slept off the pain.
I can’t begin to describe how good this made me feel to be part of this type of team again. To do this, to be a part of this special event. To see a town come together, to see so many well know names of the past take to the field once again. And to do it all for youth sports in your area. But in addition, I got to make new friends and join in the triumphs and tragedies of a new group of girls who needed to rely on one another. I saw the alumnus leader do so well, then get an ACL injury 2 weeks before the game and be unable to fully cheer. I saw people who hadn’t cheered in years work hard and gain back so much strength and confidence due to this process. Everyone had the same comment, what are we going to do now? Now that there isn’t cheer practice?
When cheerleading truly becomes a part of you, it never leaves you. And when I got to do it again, it was as if a piece of my soul that had been missing returned and made me whole again. I already feel that hole once again and miss my practice and my communications with the team. But I got a chance to show my kids and husband what this crazy thing was that was so important to me. My son is still chanting his favorite cheers to me. My daughter wants to stunt. I introduced them to something that was a big part of my life and what shaped me into the person I am today. For that, it was a truly amazing experience.
*Basket Toss. It’s when 4 cheerleaders work together to throw up a cheerleader (flyer) high up, allow her to do a toe touch or other stunt in the air, then safely catch her.
** Pictures taken by team members, thier families, and friends and shared with thier permission