All in all, it wasn't a bad summer to be an NFL player.
Aside from a few weeks of financial uncertainty as the shutters went up and the minds responsible for a nation's Sunday sanity cranked out a solution, 2011 was just fine, thank you very much.
A few weeks extra vacation, with a sparkling new collective bargaining agreement containing some welcome new regulations at the end of it? Check. And, perhaps most importantly, no more of the gut-wrenching, lung-bursting, nightmare-inducing feats of sadistic torture known as two-a-day practices.
Yet while the boys of winter were cooling their heels, there was another group of NFL athletes in full training mode. A group that even now, with the new season just a long Hail Mary away, doesn’t get to put its feet up after one daily session.
They are the cheerleaders and by the time that special day in September rolls around and we remind ourselves what we've been missing, they will have been 'in camp' for six months already. Whisper it now, especially around Bart Scott, but could the hardest working people in the NFL be a bunch of girls waving pom-poms?
My old journalism professor always told me "Where lies a question, lies a story," so with that in mind, there was no option but to find out first hand for myself. So as ThePostGame.com/Yahoo! Sports colleagues such as Michael Silver and Jason Cole headed off to various training camps around the country, I headed to Philadelphia for an NFL boot camp with a difference -- cheerleader style.
A couple of emails exchanged with Philadelphia Eagles director of cheerleading Barbara Zaun laid the groundwork for what would surely be one of my more interesting assignments and although determined to approach the workout as professionally as possible, I could not resist informing some friends about how I would be spending my Tuesday night.
Cue some messages containing the kind of abuse that only extreme jealousy can produce, and I was on my way.
"These are athletes in every sense of the word," says Suzy Zucker, as I nod my head in agreement. I try to offer something more enlightened except at this point I can barely breathe as I attempt to stretch far enough to touch my toes for the first time in about a decade. "They work as hard as anyone. I make sure of it."
I believe her.
Zucker is the Eagles' cheerleading choreographer and is, in the nicest sense of the word, a badass. Just 10 minutes into a three-hour session at a Bally's Total Fitness near Lincoln Financial Field and she has already handed out some mild rebukes to the squad, especially to me, the journalistic imposter who has gatecrashed the workout and whose muscles are now paying the price.
I'd come to Philly with an open mind, but had there been any hint of preconception that the Eagles' 38-strong squad were little more than a group of pretty dancing faces, it vanishes within the first few minutes.
First of all, there's the athleticism. I have worked in sports journalism since 2000 and have spent countless hours of my life watching elite, world class athletes going about their practice, and if not for the fact that I'm actually taking part in the proceedings with limited success and maximum embarrassment, this would have been no different.
The top athlete's intensity of focus, sharpness of concentration, attention to detail, and desire for perfection are all there. These cheerleaders will never score a touchdown or make a tackle, but they are sportswomen in every sense of the word.
Being in a room full of more than three dozen supremely attractive young women might have been part intimidating/part dream-come-true for a few fleeting moments, but once the workout begins, accompanied by the ear-splitting backdrop of up-tempo music, the primary focus is how to not make too big a fool of myself.
I'm destined to fail.
The start-up jogs, followed by twisting jumping jacks and various limbering up exercises are not too bad, but things quickly get uncomfortable -- not to mention physically impossible for an achy 32-year-old with poor posture -- when it came time to stretch in a splits position.
As I sweat and stumble, it's all too easy for Tiffany Monroe (below right), situated to my left and gliding through the different moves with the ease of someone who had done it a thousand times before. Which she has.
Monroe, 28, is a five-year veteran of the Eagles cheerleading squad, and one of its senior team captains. She not only knows how to become an NFL cheerleader, but how to stay there -- which may be even harder.
"We don't get a whole lot of rest," says Monroe, politely managing not to laugh at my latest feeble attempted maneuver. "If the team makes it deep into the playoffs we could be cheering into the New Year, and tryouts start again in March."
The selection process, which begins with more than 500 girls each year, is both grueling and nerve-shredding. There is no favor for past performance. Every team member must reapply for her place each year, whereby the initial 500 is trimmed to a group of around 60, who are given a series of intensive "business" interviews over the following weeks to ensure they are suitable to represent the Eagles' brand.
Those ladies then compete in a pageant-style event at the City of Brotherly Love's Suzanne Roberts Theater, where a panel of judges chooses the final 38.
"There is a huge amount of pressure on the girls," says Zaun. "They compete in swimsuit, dance and interview segments, we want multi-dimensional women who have beauty, fitness, danceability, intelligence, and that kind of 'wow factor' that makes people gravitate towards them."
Based on what I saw, the entire squad certainly checked those boxes.
The pay may be modest, but the opportunities offered to those picked are significant, with travel to places like Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and even Iraq for photo shoots and promotional activities. Plus the small matter of getting to wear an outfit designed by Vera Wang, with the Eagles having led the way among NFL cheer squads when the famed designer put her magic touch on their clothes in 2003.
I'm issued a pair of pompoms and get instructed on how to "use my swagger" as I stride across the dance studio in a line of girls, shaking my shoulders and chest in a grotesque parody of the strut that comes as second nature to the cheerleaders and is enjoyed by many a football fan.
My photographer, who has volunteered for this project on the understanding that I won't tell his wife, descends into in fits of laughter and I can only hope that the camera battery, which had been running low, will soon perish.
"You're doing great," smiles Tracey Dunn, a 24-year-old redhead and a new team captain (below left). "We've been practicing this for years but you're picking it up."
Perhaps the most surprising and impressive thing about the Eagles cheerleaders is that this is far from being all that they do. Dunn is a model for a television shopping network but the variety of professions is as broad as the remarkably diverse cultural make-up of the squad.
There is an accountant, a sales executive, an autism treatment specialist and a teacher. Holding a full-time job or being a full-time student is actually a job requirement, to fit in with the ideal of an all-round woman the club is trying to promote.
All of which leaves precious little time for themselves. "We have rehearsals for three hours, twice a week, but there is a lot more to it than that," says Zaun. "The girls have to work very hard to keep up their fitness so they do a lot of training on their own, and then there are Eagles-related appearances. It is an intense life and it takes a special kind of woman to do it."
Finally, it's time for the last part of my workout. I've only been taking part for a half-hour, but I'm already exhausted. The girls, of course, are just warming up.
Zucker orders me into the middle of a line of girls and quickly talks me through a routine of leg kicks and loops that I would have to perform before I could graduate from the cheer boot camp. After an uncoordinated and inflexible performance up until that point, it's my one shot at redemption.
As the music begins, Tiffany whispered a precious piece of advice -- "Don't overthink it" –- and somehow things begin to flow. Sure, my kicks are pathetically low and not in a wide-enough arc, but at least I don't bring the line toppling over as I had been warned to avoid.
Apparently this display is enough for a series of high fives and a round of applause from the girls, which I accept with grateful embarrassment.
As I head for the nearest drinking fountain in search of refreshment, the girls start up again, with more and more complex and contortionist routines that will soon be on display for the NFL public.
Because football is back, the wait is over, and it is time for the men in the middle to get back to center stage. But as the big kickoff approaches, bear in mind that there is another group of athletes who have worked just as hard to become the stars of Sunday.
And you don't want to mess with them, either.
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