Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Pumping up their image

If you are going to a high school football game to check out the cheerleaders, thinking you'll see the school's best-looking girls twirling around in short skirts, stay home.

Anyone who has been to a football game lately knows cheerleaders mean muscle and heart-thumping stunts from the girls and guys.

Guy cheerleaders?

It's not a new thing. The world of cheerleaders no longer is thought of as a fluff activity. They are male and female athletes constantly honing their skills, pumping up the fans and doing stunts that wow the crowd.

Denise Roof, varsity cheerleading coach at Lecanto High, said stunts help erase the old images of cheerleaders. "When they see what (the male cheerleaders) are doing, it's killed. They don't think they're sissies or weird. (The male cheerleaders') favorite saying is, "Any man can hold their hand, but only the elite can hold their feet,' " Roof said.

The result is that guys who want to cheer are being met with less resistance than in previous times when a thick line divided roles: Boys play football, girls cheer. End of story.

Take Jason Guinn. You look at him and he's a big guy. Height: 6 feet 2. Weight: 252 pounds. Jason, how can you not be on a football field?

Guinn did play football at Crystal River High. Then he decided he wanted to see what it would be like to be a cheerleader. Guinn remembers what people said: "You're joking."

Those doubting days are over for Guinn, 18, who is a member of the National All-Star Team and will travel to Paris in December with two female cheerleaders from his school. "It's stopped now. They saw what I could do," he said.

Joe Sanchez's father had baseball in mind for his son. "My dad pushed baseball all through my childhood. When I told him I wanted to cheer, he never heard of it," said Sanchez, a senior at Crystal River High.

At Lecanto High, "a lot of people still say we're weirdos and make fun of us," said Chris Cohen, 16, a junior. "It takes a lot of strength and maturity to do what we do."

And all that strength adds to the adrenalin a crowd exudes. "The way we are this year, I've never seen a crowd as pumped up," Cohen said.

In Citrus County, where all the high schools have male varsity cheerleaders, hard work shines through during practice sessions and at football games. A

female cheerleader sails through the air and into the waiting arms of her stunt partner, who had better be there in body and mind.

"If you put a girl in the air and she falls, she can get hurt. You have to have a lot of technique. It's not win or lose. If you lose, you go play another game. If you drop someone, their whole career can be in jeopardy," said Chris Alexander, 17, a cheerleader at Lecanto High.

Their resolve has turned people around. Sanchez, the Crystal River High cheerleader, said parents of guy cheerleaders take pride in the performances. "They say, "That's my son holding that girl with one hand over his head.' Most parents take pride in whatever their children do."

Steve Feeser, 17, a junior at Citrus High, is in his second year as a high school cheerleader. He tried out, because he thought it would be interesting. "I wasn't in it for the show. I'm a shy person," he said.

The girls work hard, too, to shed the years of negative images.

"The cheerleader with the captain of the football team, that stereotype is deteriorating. These girls on our squad are like our sisters. They get their own attention" by working hard, said Guinn

of Crystal River High.

"They think of us as brothers, not people trying to hit on them," said Alexander of Lecanto High.

Another reason for cheerleading is scholarship money.

"Right now, I'm putting my money on getting a cheerleading scholarship. That's my No. 1 priority," said Feeser of Citrus High.

"It's a real big thing for me. If I stuck it out in football, I don't think I could have gotten a scholarship," said Guinn of Crystal River High.

Rusty Hupp, who received scholarship money to cheer for the University of Miami, is widely credited with breaking into the all-female cheerleading squad at Crystal River High.

"We could never get guys interested before Rusty," said Cathie Bramlett, who coaches the varsity cheerleading squad at Crystal River High. "Cheerleading has been fluff for so many years, and now they're not fluff. We're finally starting to get respect."

"Cheerleading's been much better to him than football ever was," said Hupp's mother, Irene, a teacher at Crystal River Middle School and junior varsity cheerleading coach for

Crystal River High. Hupp said that cheerleading has turned her son's life around and that she has watched him perform on the Sunshine Network, ABC and ESPN.

The National Cheerleaders Association estimates about 7 percent of high school cheerleaders are boys. On the collegiate level, the estimate is 30 percent to 40 percent.

Lance Wagers, president of the Dallas-based association, said almost every major college has male and female cheerleaders, and although different areas of the country have different attitudes toward male cheerleaders "it's becoming more and more accepted."

"Where there are good (college) squads, high schools in the region look to that. It really takes an athlete to do this. . . . You have to be in excellent form," Wagers said.

Males have a long history in cheerleading, Wagers said. The National Cheerleaders Association was founded in 1948 by Lawrence "Herkie" Herkimer, a former college cheerleader who is noted as the father of modern cheerleading. Herkimer also is responsible for the Herkie Jump, a move that looks like a runner jumping a hurdle.