Late in the game, when East Carolina ran in a touchdown to come from behind and everyone dressed in purple and gold had a modified conniption, two heads peeked up and turned around in their seats. Geoff Roberts — his own head in an East Carolina cap — and Laura Brown held their hands up and ready, but there was no high-five to be had. The seat behind them was empty. "Where's the cheerleader?" asked the Bradenton couple. "Where's she at?"
Out on the field the team's cheerleaders were leaping and twisting, tan imports to Tropicana Field for the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Downfield, Ohio University's cheerleaders were less enthused but still present.
The cheerleader Roberts and Brown were looking for had gone to the bathroom. She would be upset to miss the play. It was her first East Carolina game in about 55 years. "What did I miss?" asked Marie Dremann, 78, taking her seat. "You're kidding me!"
Dremann moved to St. Petersburg in 1960, but before then she was a little blond girl in a small North Carolina town who cheered for her high school team. When she was accepted to East Carolina, she quickly joined the cheer team there, too.
The young women in Greenville seemed so sophisticated. Before the first football game, another cheerleader tried to teach her how to curl her eyelashes. But as soon as her teammate clamped down the curler, another girl shouted, "Marie!" The first game Dremann ever cheered for East Carolina, she was missing every single lash on her right eye.
"I loved the team so much," she says. "I loved the games where we traveled. The camaraderie, the sisterhood. It was like a sorority."
These days Dremann is long retired. She plays tennis and keeps up with her grandson, a sophomore baseball player at Boca Ciega High School. She wishes she could keep up with her alma mater, but the team is rarely televised. The last East Carolina game she had been to must have been in 1958, she says.
Then Monday morning she opened an old cardboard box and dug out her varsity letter. Hanging from her neck on a silver chain, the felt megaphone bounced left and right as she jumped from her seat and cheered, pompoms in hand.
"Go! Let's go!"
"He was wide open!"
The Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl did not draw so many people (attendance was 20,053 — out of 24,000 available seats — who watched East Carolina win 37-20). Named after a chain restaurant offering menu items like "Whole Lotta Steak Nachos," it was not the Orange or Rose Bowl. Marquee teams did not play.
"For most people, this is not a big thing," said Ernie Lewis, checking tickets at gate 101. "But I tell you, for the people here …it's such a great day."
The cheerleader did not miss her team's next touchdown. She stood and screamed and shook her pompoms. When she finally sat back down, still smiling, she put her hand over her heart. "Oh my," she said. "Oh my, my."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).