BROOKSVILLE — When Nature Coast junior Luis Espinosa first started competitive cheerleading, he heard plenty of jokes from his football teammates.
But not recently.
Maybe it’s the national title he won on the mats. Or maybe it’s the fact that he has grown from a 135-pound role player to a key member of every special team and a starting linebacker.
Regardless, the teasing has stopped, and Espinosa sees the irony: When teammates cheer his game-changing punt returns, they’re doing it because of the sport they used to jeer.
“I honestly think it’s from cheerleading,” Espinosa said.
The Shark-of-all-trades football player won a national championship last year with the Hudson-based Envision All-Stars. He has his sights set on a world title this year for the Brandon All-Stars — after trying to lead Nature Coast’s football team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“He doesn’t fit the (male cheerleader) stereotype,” said Shea Crawford, Espinosa’s Brandon All-Stars coach and the program’s tumbling director. “But he’s not bothered by the stereotype, either.”
Espinosa’s love of football came first. He started playing when he was 5 and hasn’t stopped.
His first sport unintentionally led to his new one, and maybe his future. After practice during his freshman year, Espinosa did a backflip to show off for teammates. One of the players watching was Ryan Pelaez, who cheered in high school two years before focusing on football.
He asked Espinosa to try out for the team.
“After that year, I’ve just been on the go with cheerleading,” Espinosa said.
Espinosa said he got hooked on the atmosphere of cheerleading competitions. He describes the routines as 21/2 minutes of pure, focused hard work. He practices twice a week in the fall and four times a week when cheerleading season ramps up in December.
The principles are the same in football, cheerleading and wrestling, where Espinosa finished second in districts as a sophomore. You practice the little things. You run. You lift weights. You condition.
“That’s why Luis is as good as he is now,” said Pelaez, a senior punter and receiver.
Although he probably won’t do fulls — a backflip with a 360-degree twist — or lift teammates overhead Friday night against Sunlake, he’ll display the skills he has honed in cheerleading.
When Espinosa returned a punt 93 yards (before it was called back) last week, he needed explosiveness to make a quick first step. He needed good vision to find a cutback lane. He needed strength to break a tackle. He needed agility to make a cut and leave a defender grasping at air.
All of those traits come from cheerleading, from the vision required to avoid hitting teammates in razor-thin alleys to the flexibility necessary to tumble across a 50-foot mat.
“When I’m asking someone to flip upside down and spin, I need him to go fast,” Crawford said. “I need him to operate at a high speed.”
So does Espinosa’s other coach.
Football coach Charles Liggett has moved Espinosa from cornerback to outside linebacker to add more quickness to that unit. Espinosa started at quarterback in Week 2 but now focuses on defense and special teams, where he averages 26 yards per return, 39 yards per punt and shows up on kickoffs, too.
“I think it’s just because he’s an athlete,” Liggett said. “He’s a natural-born athlete.”
This year cheerleading will take Espinosa to competitions in Indianapolis, Dallas, Atlanta and Orlando. It could take him even farther.
Crawford said Espinosa already has the charisma and talent to cheer in college. Some male cheerleaders earn scholarships, and Espinosa knows football recruiters rarely get excited for 5-foot-8, 155-pound linebackers.
As Espinosa began to focus more seriously on cheerleading, his football teammates began to ease the inevitable wisecracks — especially when Espinosa began to make bigger plays during games.
“After a while, we left him alone,” co-captain Matt Breida said.
Espinosa still gets occasional taunts at school, even after he points out that a typical competition features 600 girls and only 200 boys.
After one recent jeer, Espinosa decided to stand up for himself. He walked to the grass with another cheerleader and, with strength gained as much on the mat as on the football field, lifted her in the air. With the girl still above his head, he turned to the skeptic and asked if he could do the same.
The boy walked away without saying a word.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.