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Cheering for a leader

Stacy Westbrook has always been an ardent fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Countless Sundays would find her among the cheering fans packed inside Raymond James Stadium.

This afternoon, when the Bucs take on the Seattle Seahawks in the team's home opener, Westbrook will be there as well. Only this time, she will be watching the game from a different vantage point _ that of a Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleader.

"Excited? You bet," says the bubbly 23-year-old Brooksville native, who earned a spot on the team's cheering squad in May. To say it's a dream come true is something of an understatement, says the young woman who got her cheerleading start on the sidelines at Parrott Middle School Leopards football games.

"When I heard I had made the cut, I about fell over," Westbrook said. "There were so many talented women that tried out. All I could hope for was that my best was good enough."

It was. Westbrook endured weeks of grueling workouts that included memorizing and perfecting about 20 different dance routines before the 500 initial applicants were whittled down to the final 30 slots.

A former homecoming and prom queen at Hernando High School, Westbrook no doubt also had the attractive wholesomeness the team was looking for. However, she admits that being a highly visible symbol of Tampa Bay's coveted football team has taken a bit of getting used to.

A couple of weeks ago, she was stopped by some fans in a restaurant who asked for her autograph. For a moment she felt a bit strange. "Someone asking me for my autograph?" Westbrook said. "It made my day."

A full-time student enrolled in the University of South Florida's honors college program, Westbrook admits the nonpaying job of a Bucs cheerleader has its share of rigors and demands, both on and off the field. Each week, she attends a minimum of two squad practices, plus daily personal workouts. In addition to game appearances, she and the 27 other members of the cheerleading team make numerous personal appearances during the season.

Nonetheless, Westbrook says she has been overjoyed by the experience so far. Since joining the team, she has traveled to places such as Germany, where she cheered for fans at the World Bowl football game. She also has been involved in a number of community-oriented projects sponsored by the Bucs, including a fundraiser at Raymond James Stadium for victims of Hurricane Charley that raised several thousand dollars.

That involvement made Westbrook realize how much respect Bucs fans have for their team. "Bucs fans are the best," she said. "They're really upbeat at the games, and that makes it a lot of fun for me."

Westbrook's own fans are at every game as well. Her boyfriend, Donnie Whitehead, is a longtime season ticket holder. Her parents, Robin and Teresa Westbrook, sit in a section near the field not far from the spot where her seven-member cheer squad performs during the fourth quarter. Her mom, she says, is easy to spot from the field.

"Every time I look over there, she's taking pictures of me," Westbrook said with a laugh. "She just got a camera with a huge lens on it, so I know I'm not going to be able to escape her."

About the only negative thing that Westbrook has found about being a Bucs cheerleader is having to miss most of the action on the field.

"I'm always facing the crowd, so when something exciting happens I have to try to catch a little glimpse of the replay on the Jumbotron," Westbrook said. "It makes it a little tough because I've always been such a big fan."

Though she is affiliated with one of the National Football League's most popular franchises, Westbrook happily admits she's still very much a small-town girl. With plans to go into dentistry after college, her preference would be to set up a private local practice someday.

"I'm not much for the hustle and bustle of the big city," she offered. "The people I love are here in Brooksville. It would take a lot to tear me away from that."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneillsptimes.com.

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