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'It’s much greater than a sport': Behind the scenes of LSU Cheer

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After every event, the LSU cheerleaders stand in a circle, hold the right pinky of the person to their left, and Spirit Squad Director Pauline Zernott leads them in a prayer. This prayer has been said for decades, so cheerleader alumni, along with current students on the team, know the words by heart. 

Noah Rogers cheered in 12 different stadiums over his five years as an LSU cheerleader, and the only stadium that ever came close to Death Valley was Lambeau Field in Wisconsin, he says. 

“I think it speaks volumes as to how spectacular Tiger Stadium is,” Rogers says. “Being in the stadium is just totally different. It’s a feeling I can’t even begin to explain because it’s so exciting, and it just takes your breath away... It’s extremely hard to put into words because you’re just awestruck.”

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He still remembers the feeling of butterflies in his stomach on gameday. Rogers, who graduated from the University in May, recalls feeling nervous because of the complex, skilled routines the cheerleaders perform for pregame. Once pregame ended, Rogers says his heart would race because the team would feed off of the crowd’s energy on the field. 

It’s easy to get pumped up when cheering for a team like LSU, he says, where the game’s outcome is often unpredictable and the anticipation is tangible. 

“It’s really easy because we’re cheering on one of the most incredible teams in the NCAA,” Rogers says. “LSU is well known for their excitement, their aggression, for a heart attack — you never know. With four seconds left in the fourth quarter, LSU will either win a bowl game or they will fight to the death.”

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During the games, the cheerleaders aren’t afraid to let loose and have fun. At 2015’s game against Western Kentucky University, the cheerleaders  made it onto cbssports.com when they used their signs as slides and made a slip-n-slide game of the torrential downpour.

On home game days, the team starts its day at a facility in the Carl Maddox Field House 3.5 to four hours before the game. The team begins with promotional events for the Tiger Athletic Fund and the L Club, as well as an event in Tiger One Village outside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Afterward, the cheerleaders return to their facility at the Field House before their entrance to Tiger Stadium, where they prepare for the game. They then return to North Stadium Drive for the parade down the hill with the LSU Tiger Marching Band, one of the most revelled events on gameday. Once the parade ends, the team is back in the stadium until the end of the game, lasting upward of 3.5 hours.

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At halftime, the cheerleaders take a break in Tiger Stadium’s historic Bill Lawton Room, where they welcome the opposing team’s cheerleaders and eat. 

Despite the busy day, it’s pure magic for team members.

Senior and fourth year LSU cheerleader Lily Lowry says the emotions she feels during the games are indescribable. Watching the student section celebrate after a touchdown and hearing the fireworks before pregame is “incredible.” She recalls her first game as an LSU cheerleader: a sunny gameday when students threw their waters and drinks in the air, “like a golden rain.”

For team captain Brendan Bice, gamedays are a “once in a lifetime experience,” but his fellow cheerleaders are what make it truly special, he says.

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“That’s the reason I keep showing back up,” Bice says. “Like ‘Oh, man, we got practice again,’ but I get to see the people here. The people on the team are incredible ... It really is like a whole second family.”

Members describe cheer as a lifelong experience — participating in something few have the opportunity to do and making lasting friendships. Cheerleader alumni often play the pregame song at their weddings, with ex-cheerleaders in the crowd performing the hand motions with the bride or groom, Rogers says. 

The family aspect isn’t lost on Riley Reynolds, who is in her third year on the team. Reynolds described the cheer facility as her home away from home, but overall she enjoys the opportunities outside of gameday and practice the most.

“Being able to represent and be an ambassador for this school is something I love,” Reynolds says. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in my college life. It’s so much fun.” 

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Though many would assume the cheerleaders’ favorite sport to cheer at would be football, that’s not always the case. For instance, Rogers loved cheering for basketball in the PMAC.

Rather than 30 yards away like in Death Valley, you’re close enough that you can feel the basketball players’ sweat fling off when they’re running up and down the court, Rogers says. 

“The energy in [the PMAC] is probably 10 times more [than Death Valley] when the PMAC is maxed-out, full capacity, everyone is just screaming, and everyone is fighting for those last 11 seconds,” Rogers says. “Basketball definitely has a close place in my heart … it’s loud, it’s obnoxious, and I loved every second of it.”

The cheerleaders don’t have a specific season because they’re on the sidelines for every sport that does have a particular season, Rogers says. 

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Cheerleaders go from about July 10 to March 20, but soon after it’s time for the first round of tryouts and workouts until their summer camp in July. They then attend a week-long spirit camp in Alabama before returning for a final round of cuts in August, if necessary.

“For girls, the tryout experience and preparing is a lot different than guys,” Rogers says. “For the guys, we are there to make the girls look good. That is our main job.” 

However, participating in a traditionally female-dominated sport as a male cheerleader isn’t always easy. But, social norms are changing, Rogers says.

“I think [people] think it’s cool because you’re involved with LSU and sports ... I have not had too many bad experiences, but honestly at the end of the day when I have had [them], you just shake it off and realize ‘Dude, you know, I got the best seat in the house,’” he says.

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Male cheerleaders are responsible for keeping the girls safe as they’re executing difficult stunts. Like any sport, injuries can occur, so safety is the number one priority when they’re learning routines, he says. 

Trying out for a collegiate team is a different ball game for the girls, Rogers says — female cheerleaders have to have every their act together. They have to be in physical shape, be coherent of their body while tumbling or stunting, have a top-tier presentation and carry themselves for the community.

“At the end of the day, there’s probably a 3- or 4-year-old girl in a cheer uniform, and she’s looking up to those young ladies. So you have to have a girl who is well-rounded and who is able to take on the responsibility of being in the limelight for a lot of these little girls and/or little boys,” Rogers says. 

Cheerleaders represent the University and act as ambassadors for LSU, so they have to uphold an appropriate appearance and always be conscious of their behavior, including their social media presence, Rogers says. 

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LSU cheerleaders perform at athletic events throughout the entire year, but they report to LSU Athletics’ marketing team and can attend up to three promotional events a week. 

As long as they maintain an LSU cumulative GPA of 2.3, they’re eligible for scholarships, known as “Financial Service Awards,” which are awarded based on their year on the team. Members can receive up to $2,000 and are also eligible for service awards based on volunteer service hours.

LSU cheerleaders can take advantage of resources offered to student-athletes, such as tutoring services and study rooms. The cheerleaders are expected to log in study hall hours every week, in addition to their practice time and workouts. 

Practices are usually held four days a week for two hours, and workouts are held three days a week for one hour, which consist of strength and conditioning training. 

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“I’m not sure if people underestimate, but I doubt if they are fully aware of how much work actually goes into it,” says coach Chris Bradford.

Bice says it’s hit or miss if fans realize the amount of effort put into being an LSU cheerleader, but the recognition the team receives is beginning to grow.

“We’ve gotten emails from people that really appreciate that we are there,” Reynolds says. “We love receiving them – having input, any corrections they have, their feedback – we really enjoy that.”

The team currently has 36 members this academic year. According to the team website, the cheerleading team is broken down into three squads: Purple, Gold and White. Gold consists of eight advanced co-ed couples who cheer at football and basketball games, gymnastic meets and other special events. Purple is made of eight co-ed couples who perform at football and basketball games, as well as both indoor and beach volleyball matches. The White squad consists of four to six co-ed couples that fill in for the other squads as necessary.

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After the team is finalized for the school year, they work almost nonstop for nine straight months, perfecting routines, tumbles and choreography. This work entails more than just practicing their stunts for the sideline – every year team members travel to Orlando, Florida to compete in the UCA National Collegiate Cheerleading Championship. 

“We just push through it,” Lowry says. “It can be a lot, but we’re tough.”

The cheerleaders start their preparation for nationals in September, and work begins to pick up in October and November. Come December, the team practices twice a day, up to six hours total. Their winter break is typically consumed with preparation for nationals and cheering the bowl game, besides three days set aside for Christmas. 

“It is exciting because what the fans and what the students see on gameday is not what we bring to nationals,” Rogers says. “It’s a totally different mindset.”

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The cheerleaders tied for seventh place last year. 

The experience from cheerleading extends beyond athletics. Rogers says post-graduation, he uses skills he learned from cheerleading to connect with other people and in his professional life, as well. 

“I don’t think it’s a sport. I think it’s a lifestyle,” Rogers says. “I think it’s much greater than a sport.” 

Brandon Adam and Lauren Heffker contributed to this story.

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