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America's sweethearts

IRVING, Texas -- The game had just kicked off, Monday Night Football's triumphant return to the country's most football-crazed state, but the four men in the front row of Texas Stadium didn't have their eyes on the Cowboys or Eagles.

Instead, they zoned in on the fronts, backs, tops and bottoms of the 19 Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders who were strolling by to take their in-game positions.

"I love you."

"I love you."

"I love you."

Nineteen different times they repeated the three-word phrase, with "ooohs," "ahhhs" and "wows" filtered in for good measure. Hair color, eye color, skin color, it didn't matter. The uniform did. The carefully constructed bowtie, revealing a curvaceous chest. The size-too-small "Daisy Dukes," barely covering the bottom of the backside. The white leather boots, ending just above the calf.

These are the first ladies of football. A group so popular that even after Monday's 49-21 triumph over the Cowboys, a throng of Eagles fans hung around the Texas Stadium tunnel and offered a rousing round of applause as each of the squad's 38 members exited. A group so popular that a 1979 television movie about the cheerleaders received a 60 percent share of the national audience, the highest rating for a made-for-TV movie that wasn't "Roots."

Oakland has the Black Hole, Cleveland has the Dawg Pound, the Jets have Fireman Ed, but Dallas has the most iconic fan representation of all -- the world's most famous cheerleaders. Cowboys football without them is like pizza without cheese.

"They're an icon," said choreographer Judy Trammell, who cheered from 1980-84. "When they put that uniform on, everybody knows who they are. They become instant celebrities."

That's why each April, some 600 girls from across the country gather in Dallas in hopes of becoming the next icon. The only requirement to try out? They must be 18 and have a high school diploma or GED. The unwritten requirements to make it? A basic understanding of dance; some semblance of intelligence; an outgoing, understanding, friendly, patient personality and, of course, "a flattering figure."

"This group," Trammell said, as she pointed to the field, "is always on. We only pick girls that this comes naturally to."

Tryouts are a bear. After the initial 600 are trimmed to 120, the group is taught a specific routine. Based on that performance, the group is cut to 65. That begins the final round, when any member of the current squad who wants to try and rejoin is added to the mix. That final group of about 85 goes through a two-day run of routines, interviews and written tests covering everything from current events to Cowboys football. From that group, the final 35 to 40 Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are chosen.

"In that initial phase, when all those ladies are standing up there together, it's intimidating. You get so nervous," fourth-year member Amber Gosdin, 27, said. "But that's what it takes to do this in front of 65,000 people. If you can survive the tryouts, you can survive this."

The Cowboys cheerleaders aren't pro football's original sideline sensations -- that distinction goes to the group that cheered the Baltimore Colts back in the 1940s. But the Cowboys' are without question the most popular. The phenomenon started in 1972, when Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm began transforming the franchise from sports to sports entertainment. Sixty girls tried out for the first squad. Seven made it. Four years later, during Super Bowl X, a Cowboys cheerleader winked into the living rooms of 75 million homes. It was love at first sight.

"We were the first with this concept of the attractive dancer," director Kelli Finglass said. "The team was winning, and with 'Dallas' the TV show and J.R. Ewing, the city was seen as bigger than life. And we had the perfect mix of beauty and talent, we blended right in with that. Everything came together."

Today, the cheerleaders practice some 25 hours per week -- year round -- and get paid $50 for each game appearance. Though there's no cap on age, the oldest Cowboys cheerleader ever was a 36-year-old mother of four. This year, the eldest is 28, the youngest 18. Of the 38 members, three are married and one is engaged. The other 34 are listed as single.

In the daytime, they are everything from students and dental assistants to accountants and financial analysts. In the offseason, a select group tours the world, performing everywhere from California to Korea. They perform for everyone from senior citizens in a veteran's hospital to helicopter pilots in the Army.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is constantly being "on." Smiling, laughing, teasing, flaunting. Looking sexy enough so fans will buy the swimsuit calendar and playing cards, but trying not to slug the fans when they ask what's hidden behind that chest-front bow.

Photo requests? Never ending.

Marriage proposals? Constant.

"It might be awkward for some of the younger girls, but it becomes second nature," Gosdin said. "It's all in good-natured fun."

Gosdin handles the role just about perfectly. After all, there she was after Monday's Cowboys trouncing, late in returning to the cheerleaders' locker room, when an Eagles fan in a wheelchair stopped her, asking for a photo. She stopped, put her arm around him, leaned forward and smiled. Flash.

"How about one with just you?" he asked.

She stepped back, put her pompon-filled hands on her hips, flipped on her cute and innocent look and smiled. Flash.

"How about one with the camera sideways?" he asked, seriously.

"Not a problem," she said in a soft, courteous tone. "But just one -- then I've got to head to the locker room. I'm running a little behind."

It's never easy.

"It takes a special personality," Gosdin said. "And you either have that or you don't. It's the ultimate prerequisite. You have to smile, be friendly, be accommodating -- all the time. If not, there's no place for you."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.