By Mary Buckheit
Special to Page 2

I come from this school of thought: If you can ring a doorbell, you can be a cheerleader.

But then again, I'm a jock. You won't find my picture next to the 'best legs' category in the yearbook. But if you flip to the back, there I am, winner of the 'most likely to have scraped knees' superlative. I'm more Sue Bird than Jessica Simpson ... more Sporty Spice than Slinky Sandy. I'm an athlete, not a cheerleader.

Jessica, Mary, Marcy, Lindsey
One of these girls doesn't look like the others ...

It's an important distinction. There are inherent differences between people like me and people like them. Cheerleaders lack the competitive craze -- that do-or-die drive -- that athletes have. So you can't blame athletes for their cynical sneer at all things pompom.

Naturally, then, when talk in a recent meeting here at "The Worldwide Leader" turned to the Cheerleader Challenge, I was skeptical -- bang-my-head-on-the-desk skeptical. We're not Maxim; we're a sports site -- and cheerleading is certainly not a sport. I mean, God bless it, but c'mon: They're nothing more than busty bi-products of on-field competition. They're a gratuitous sideshow of shimmies and shakes.

With this mentality planted firmly in my thick head, I listened intently as my boss told me I'd be going on assignment to hang with a college cheerleading squad for a few days. I was to gauge the intensity, the ability, the athleticism ...

Bring it on, I thought smugly.

I made arrangements to join the not-so-Cinderella Gonzaga Bulldogs in sunny Santa Clara, California, where I would hang with the cheer team through its West Coast Conference basketball tournament endeavors.

BE OF GOOD CHEER
Are you ready for ESPN.com's Cheerleader Challenge?

Starting Thursday, 16 of the top cheerleading squads in the nation will vie for our title, with your votes determining the winner.

To view all the matchups, you'll need ESPN Motion. If you don't have Motion yet, click here to download it.

Brimming with the arrogance all jocks conveniently store in the chip on their shoulder, I threw on my flip-flops, packed up my pool attire and headed west ... to cover cheerleading. Oh well, at least I'd come back with a tan.

I never dreamed that I'd also return with a suitcase full of appreciation for cheer squads everywhere.

*****

When I arrived in California, I called Gonzaga's cheer coach, Steve Kramer, to check on the whereabouts of my little spirit sticks, and agreed to meet the squad for dinner. But an initial scan of the crowded local eatery didn't offer many clues. Try as I might, I couldn't find a table full of flighty blondes anywhere. Had they already finished? After all, cheerleaders don't really eat, they just giggle at their lettuce until they forget what they're doing there in the first place, right?

Overwhelmed by the activity in the restaurant, my anxious eyes finally settled on a man in a red Gonzaga golf shirt seated at the head of a table packed with 20-somethings.

"You must be Mary," the man said.

Gonzaga's Cheer Squad
Would you have known this was a cheer team?

Could this be the cheerleading team? I took a quick inventory of the bunch -- eight girls and eight boys. How cute, the ladies brought their boyfriends, I thought. I took my seat and was introduced to the team -- all eight girls and all eight boys. My bad. Those weren't boyfriends. They were "stuntmen." Cheerleaders. I made a mental note to mind my pronouns from here on out.

I wasn't impressed with the quesadillas, but I couldn't help liking these kids and their coach, immediately. They are a personable and down-to-earth bunch of good-looking college students.

Strolling back to the team hotel after dinner, the fellas gathered around me, anxious to hear what ESPN headquarters is really like. I answered their questions as best I could, considering I was really just dying to know what being a guy on a cheerleading team is really like.

I was amazed by these boys. Every one of them is a strapping athlete. In a word: diesel. They don't look like any cheerleaders I knew. Alex and Pat look like linemen. Travis and Dave look like middle infielders. Mark strikes me as a small forward. Justin and Cort definitely have played some soccer in their day, and Jason and Austin look like lacrosse stars.

This wasn't at all what I expected, and I just couldn't get my mind around it. How the heck did these burly jocks end up on a cheerleading squad? What was the reasoning behind this?

Silly me.

The first reason is the girls. The rest of the reasons don't matter.

Guys, what would you do if a hot college cheerleader scoped you out in the weight room, sized up your hefty set of squats, came over, touched your arm, tilted her head, batted her eyelashes and said, "Hey big guy, will you come throw me around for a little while ... please?"

Gonzaga guys
And they thought they came to Gonzaga to be the next John Stockton.

Uhhh, yeah.

And if the aforementioned "little while" happened to turn into an hour or two every night, you'd probably still do it, right?

Uhhh, right.

How does the old saying go? When opportunity knocks -- answer the freakin' door. So when this little scenario played out in real life, Gonzaga cheerleader Patrick Mulick knew how to handle the peculiar question.

"I was kind of confused, but I said yes; and I went with the girls. Sure enough, they really wanted me to throw them around. I was like, 'Uh, you want me to put my hands where? What? All right.' So they had me do a few lifts and then they said, 'Congratulations, you made the team' ... I was like, 'Huh?' I didn't know I'd tried out, but OK."

The other seven guys on the squad at Gonzaga have similar stories of sabotage. Every year, the beauties pick out their prey and badger the athletic hunks until they cave and climb on board the spirit train. It's almost not fair to think the ladies exploit their allure like this; but the guys are so easy, they'll do anything to make a pretty girl happy.

Even cheer.

Coach Kramer describes the tactics used to make the hard sell.

"Of course, I tell them about all the travel and the tournaments. But really, we just smother them with attention. We see the strong guys around campus -- the guys that could do this -- and the girls just approach them and badger them. Everywhere they go, they have the ladies saying hello to them, waving to them, running over to them, begging them to join. What other team can you join where you instantly have eight best friends who are girls?"

Gonzaga girls
C'mon, could you turn these lovely ladies down?

How would you like to be walking around campus or hanging at the bar with your boys when a swarm of ladies calls you out? Feels good, don't it?

But make no mistake, it's a symbiotic relationship. The ladies on the squad can't say enough nice things about their male counterparts. Senior captain Marcy Kallmann says of their role: "The guys are such mediators. It's so nice to have them breaking up all the petty drama you inevitably deal with among a group of girls. They are so good to us and for us, really."

Petty drama among girls? Hmm, that sounded suspiciously like something I'd say about my old teammates.

But isn't it weird having boys you hardly know all over you -- and under you?

Sophomore Laura Swanson dismisses the notion.

"Yeah, it's a little weird at first, the first day you meet these guys and they are immediately working with you and touching you. But before you know it, they're like your brothers. You know when they are holding you up there, they're not thinking, 'Oh yeah, look at her butt. 'They're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, don't drop her.'

"Well," Swanson says with a laugh, "except for maybe Austin."

*****

OK, so you're already a ladies' man. You don't need any help in the dating department. But don't forget, the megaphone comes with the golden ticket, too: the best seat in the house at every game. Want whistles and bells? Try a free trip to the conference tournament and, if you should be so lucky, an all-expense paid trip to the Big Dance or bowl game.

Could YOU make the cut??
Here are the bare minimum tryout requirements of the Gonzaga Cheer Squad. Think you could hack it?

For the Fellas:

  • 2-mile run
  • 20 bar dips
  • 24" vertical
  • Bench 100% body weight 10x
  • Proper spotting technique. Stunting ability including partner flicks, chairs and toss-to-hands.

    For the Ladies:

  • 2-mile run
  • 10 bar dips
  • 19" vertical
  • Bench 75% body weight 10x
  • The day of the tryout, girls will be taught a moderate degree of difficultly dance routine which they will have one hour to learn and then perform in front of the judges in small groups.
  • You like apples? How 'bout them apples?

    Still, some stubborn guys just can't bring themselves to take the first step. It's tough preparing for the mortifying moment when you walk through the gym door with the sign that says "Cheerleading Tryouts Today!" on it as your intramural hockey buds look on disparagingly. And then if you make it through tryouts, what do you tell your roommates you're doing as you sneak off to practice every night? Where do you hide your megaphone? How do you tell your dad?!

    The male mind treats all of these as legitimate deterrents to saddling up with the squad, but there seems to be one overriding curtailment for college guys.

    "They have to be sober for games," summed up Seth Urruty, a junior at Gonzaga and Vice President of the Kennel Club (the University's super-fan student section). "They have to work on their cheers while we party."

    That argument makes sense to me. I mean, the only reason I caught up with Urruty and the other GU students who made the 18-hour trek to Santa Clara from Spokane was because I skipped cheer practice.

    There, I said it. I skipped cheer practice.

    But I only ditched to get the inside scoop on how the cheerleaders are perceived by other students on campus. I swear, boss, it was in the name of thorough journalism that I spent the afternoon with the crazy Kennel Club members who were hanging out by the pool 'hydrating' for the evening's big WCC championship game. I immersed myself among these spring-breakers only to get the low-down on the campus cheer scene.

    GU senior Kevin O'Brien explained it to me.

    The Kennel Club
    The Kennel Club keeps the heckling aimed only at the opposing schools.

    "At Gonzaga, the student section is so rowdy that the cheerleaders just kind of start the stuff and then we pretty much take over. But we have a few [more linguistically colorful] cheers that we do by ourselves, because they're on the team and they can't say that kind of stuff. We take care of the heckling."

    Says Urruty: "We research everything about the other team. They put some personal stuff on roster pages these days. I can tell you every rival's favorite movie, his major, his GPA, his dog's name, anything."

    So the Kennel Club does the dirty work while the disciplined cheerleaders keep tempo and pull off the high-flying stunts -- the ones Captain Morgan and the rest of the students are better off staying away from for purposes of self-preservation.

    When asked what he and his boys think about the male cheerleaders, Kennel Clubber Ryan Franklin mused, "It's cool. I mean, nobody gives them any crap, or anything. There's nothing wrong with it. GU is a small campus. Everybody pretty much knows those guys. I'm not a cheerleader, but whatever -- do whatever you want to do, you know? The guys that do it -- they're all good guys. Plus, they're all pretty ripped and they do some cool stuff out there."

    In this day and age, it seems there's no shame in cheerleading. The cheer dudes don't suffer unnecessary scrutiny for their vocal vocation.

    *****

    Girls of Gonzaga Cheer
    Not athletes? Go on now, check out their legs!

    It appears the girls have seen their image evolve a bit, too. Asked if guys on campus still think it's 'cool' to date a cheerleader, Urruty answered, "Nah, not really. I mean, it just depends on who the girl is, I guess. I don't think guys look at cheerleaders the way they used to. They're not like the girls to date on campus like I guess they used to be way back, whenever. They're just kind of like all the other girls. They're not degraded, and they're not prestiged. If you're a cool girl or if you're hot or whatever, it doesn't really matter what you do."

    So who are the "girls to get with" these days? The boys tell me that athletes carry the most distinction.

    "Probably the girls basketball players ... or soccer girls. Athletes are hot," O'Brien said.

    And we're back to where we began. Is there still a distinction between cheerleaders and "real" athletes?

    Franklin attempted to clarify it for me.

    "I don't think I'd call the guy cheerleaders athletes, but they're definitely all jacked. Seriously, those guys are all pretty big. I couldn't do that stuff."

    Urruty broke down the squad further.

    Tanya
    Jeez. I can't bend down and touch my toes!

    "For the girls, the tumblers are athletes -- you know, the ones who flip and stuff. But the ones who just stand there and clap their pompoms are not."

    I posed the million-dollar question to Gonzaga's women's basketball team, which was also in California for what proved to be a run to their own WCC title game.

    "I don't really think of cheerleaders as athletes, but I think they do a good job. They're always practicing and getting to the arena two hours before our games. I don't know what they do for so long. Practice, I guess," said sophomore forward Monica Uhrig.

    Yes, practice. And let me tell you something, these sessions are no cakewalk. Picture this. As the female partner stands stiff as a board, clenching every muscle in her body, her male partner stands behind her holding her hips. On the count of "two," the tandem squat simultaneously and in one swift motion, the girl miraculously ends up standing on the guy's shoulders.

    This little ditty is the most basic you'll find in a cheerleader's bag of tricks; they do ten of these just to warm-up ... but it was the only stunt I had mastered by the last night of my field trip.

    Landing on a set of sturdy shoulders is child's play, I'd have to step it up if I wanted to make the squad. They up the ante with a "chair," when the guy flicks the girl up and catches her butt on the palm of a hand now extended above his head. Do it right and she lands as if nothing just happened, looking as if she is relaxing on a comfy love seat. Got that? I didn't. But they kept going without me.

    Gonzaga
    This sure looks pretty athletic to us.

    Next up, the toss-to-hands. It's a cheerleader's equivalent to the layup, but a stunt that amazed me every time. The guy launches the girl up to his shoulder level and with his elbows bent, catches her heels in his hands. Then both can then straighten their arms up all the way above their heads if they want to show off.

    Are you picking up what I'm putting down? These cheer bunnies are for real.

    I guarantee the guys could squat, clean and military press you under the table. The ladies? Well, the ones I met were all sheets of muscle. Their triceps and abs are forces to be reckoned with and their willingness to stay fit of their own free will is unwavering. Freshman Jessica Hertz walked by as I sat in the lobby one afternoon. Asked what she was up to, Hertz replied, "We're gonna go run again." For those keeping score at home, this was their second trip of the day to the fitness center, and this jog was sandwiched between the day's two scheduled practices. Double sessions. Who knew?

    Now, if it's starting to sound like I'm endorsing their candidacy for acceptance as athletes ... trust me, it isn't easy to type. I must be getting soft.

    But gush, I must. These girls are dedicated to keeping their very visible bods in top shape. They are flexible and strong, with an incredible sense of balance. You can take the most athletic girl you know, dress her up in a little skirt and halter top and stick her out there, but there's just no way she is going to be able to do the stuff that cheerleaders can. Just as there's no way a cheerleader could stroll onto a field hockey, basketball or softball team and blend in with the starters.

    So what is it that keeps us from taking cheerleaders as seriously as we should?

    Call it semantics, but I say, first, get rid of that "squad" nonsense. Cheerleaders are disciplined, strong and coordinated. They function with the fluidity, respect and cohesion of a team. They have a coach who they depend on, leaders who they look up to and a goal that they work towards. They train hard and focus fast. They hone their craft to accomplish things that most of their peers can't -- not even the "Most Athletic" stud in your yearbook.

    Uhrig, Buckheit, O'Brien, Urruty
    By the end of the trip, Mary (second from left) was an honorary Kennel Club member and had plenty to cheer about.

    I learned so much from those zippy Zags. On the flight home, I dissected my change-of-cheer heart while I desperately tried to shake that damn, "Go! Gonzaga! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!" chant out of my head.

    It reminds me of a catchy softball shout from back in my pixie league days.

    "We don't wear no miniskirt.
    We wear our jersey shirt.
    And we don't sip no lemonade.
    We drink that Gatorade.
    And we don't dance with Barbie dolls.
    We play with bats and balls."

    It didn't strike me until then -- but we athletes sure seem a lot like cheerleaders.

    And it didn't strike me until now, but those cheerleaders sure seem a lot like athletes.

    Mary Buckheit makes contributions to Page 2 and is Page 3's advice columnist. She can be reached at Mary.J.Buckheit@espn3.com or email her a question here.




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