TAMPA — Lorenzo Gilbert didn’t follow football growing up. He ran track as a kid and played a little football with his brothers in Miami, but wasn’t one to have his eyes glued to the television on Sundays rooting for any specific team or favorite players.
But now here he is, in the NFL, on the field, rooting for the Bucs at every home game.
Gilbert, 32, is the team's first male cheerleader, one of six rookies on the Buccaneers' 32-member squad and one of a suddenly growing number of male cheerleaders throughout the NFL.
“It’s a big role because at the end of the day, they can never take away the fact that I was the first,” Gilbert said. “It’s scary at times because you never know how some people may perceive it because it is unfamiliar territory, but my goal is to do the best I can possibly do and just hope that that inspires others.”
Tara Battiato, the Bucs’ senior cheerleader manager, said that men have tried out for the team before, but none could match the skill set of Gilbert, who emerged from more than 100 candidates during tryouts for this season’s squad.
“You have to be an elite dancer cheerleader to be on our team regardless of gender,” Battiato said. “It’s hard to be a member of our team, and we have hundreds of candidates every season that don’t make it because they’re not qualified. ... If this inspires men, women, anyone to come out and be a part of our team, that just makes everything better.”
Before last year, there were no men on any NFL choreographed dance cheerleading squad — the Ravens have had males on their squad for a decade, but they are stunt cheerleaders. Last season, Napoleon Jinnies and Quinton Peron joined the Rams cheerleading squad and became the first males to cheer in a Super Bowl. The Saints also added their first male cheerleader last season, Jesse Hernandez.
This season, Gilbert is among 17 male choreographed dance cheerleaders representing NFL teams. The Seahawks’ squad has eight males, and this year changed its name from the Sea Gals to the Seahawks Dancers. The Saints squad, the Saintsations, now has three men. The Patriots have two, the Eagles one and the Titans one.
A dancer and choreographer with Event Show Productions in Ybor City, Gilbert held an interest in trying out — he was looking for a place where he could dance and “really sweat” — but he initially hesitated to try out. Brittany Dahlberg, a coworker, fourth-year Bucs cheerleader and second-year captain on the squad, encouraged him.
Still, Gilbert’s technical training in modern dance — he studied at New World School of Arts in Miami — was much different than the sharp, hard-hitting movements that cheerleaders perform in their routines.
“He was all in from the jump,” Dahlberg said. "He said this was something he knew he wanted to do. He seemed a little more nervous than a typical gig because this is a huge deal. It’s the NFL it’s not just a little side gig. I tried to hold his hand along along the way, telling him, ‘You got this.’ I could tell he really wanted it deep down, and he showed that through the entire process. This is what his dream was.”
Gilbert said the squad immediately embraced him and that he’s never had a better support team than he does with his fellow cheerleaders. But the sudden recognition he received caught him off guard. Much of it proved encouraging, but jarring: fans coming up to him at dinner asking for a photo.
But when Gilbert created an Instagram account, the comments he received varied dramatically.
“I was on a plane with my coworkers and I’m just crying on the plane like, ‘These people are so cruel (with their comments),’ and one of my coworkers said, ‘Don’t read the comments, you should never read the comments.’ And I just think that since I have tough skin I always have to know that there’s going to be good and bad and just take it for what it is and just be the best you.”
Gilbert said he’s received support from the other NFL male cheerleaders. They have a Facebook group together where they offer advice. “That’s our little fellowship.” Gilbert said the group plans to meet in the offseason and start planning ways to encourage others interested in cheerleading.
Shortly after Gilbert made the team, the LGBTQ media website Watermark proclaimed Gilbert as the Bucs’ first openly gay male cheerleader. And after that, Bucs co-owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz trumpeted Gilbert’s addition to the organization as another example of the team’s focus on diversity and inclusion.
But Gilbert never asked for that title. He fears it would "put me in a box."
“I don’t hide my sexuality, but I also don’t broadcast it,” Gilbert said. “People who know me, know that I’m openly gay, and the world pretty much knows. That’s no secret. I just don’t want that to be a focal point. I want my talent and my gift and what I do on the team to be what we’re focusing on."
Gilbert said he would rather focus on encouraging any males — straight or gay — that they can follow in his footsteps.
“I didn’t want to discourage certain males interested in it,” Gilbert said. “Certain times the stigma is that because you’re openly gay, that you’re effeminate. And as a dancer, that’s not what I try to be. But I want males — straight or gay — to know that if this is something you love to do that you can do it. Your sexuality doesn’t define who you are as a cheerleader or as a person, so that’s what I don’t want to focus on it because I think want people to think, I have to be homosexual to be a cheerleader because that’s absolutely not the case.”
Gilbert said he believes he’s making a mark. One moment that hit home came when the Bucs went to London. The new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium where the team played had a specially-designated male cheerleader dressing room.
“My heart skipped a beat,” he said.
Many men have reached out and asked about his journey, and Gilbert remembers one interaction with two boys at training camp as a proud moment.
“I had two little guys come up to me, and that was a big moment for me because they were so happy and they had their parents right there with them,” he said. “So it was something new for me. Just having the conversation with them. I had to realize I was at this appearance and I took about 15 minutes having a full on conversation. It was exciting because they just seemed so happy that this was something they wanted to do, and to know that I opened that door or they thought I opened that door for them, it’s just amazing.”
Dahlberg, the friend and coworker Gilbert credits for pushing him to try out, sees the impact.
“He’s expanding the program in a different direction we’ve never gone before,” Dahlberg said. “He’s giving people who maybe always wanted to do this before but were maybe too timid because it’s never happened. It’s like a ‘Here I am, you can do it, too’ type of thing."
So when the Bucs play their first home game in six weeks on Nov. 10, Gilbert will be there, smiling and sweating.
“I take joy every time I’m on the field,” Gilbert said. “It’s what I love to do. I love to dance. I love to entertain. I love to show people the gift that God has given me and that in itself its just a joyful feeling, so to be on that field, I’m always excited and happy, even when I’m full sweating and look a mess, I’m out there, whole smile, just happy to be there.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.