Saturday, January 19, 2008

Former cheerleader still roots for the Patriots 

Posted by Sasha at 6:06 PM ET

By Stephen Beale
Union Leader Correspondent

BEDFORD – If her Patriots themed license plate isn't enough of a clue, then walking into her business surely is.

The first thing that greets customers when they step into the Manchester Sprint-Nextel store owned by Patty Vilela is a life-sized cut-out of Tom Brady next to the front desk. And during the regular season, Vilela shows up to work wearing a football jersey.

Vilela was a Patriots cheerleader when the team went to the Super Bowl in 1997.

That year, she got to share a pre-game elevator chat with quarterback Drew Bledsoe and hang out with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and rock star Jon Bon Jovi at the post-game party.

"It's a blur still," Vilela said. "It was unbelievable."

Vilela, who lives in Bedford with her husband, Steve, and once directed the Manchester Wolves Dance Team, remembers rooting for the Patriots when they were losing more games than they were winning.

"There's no word for it," Vilela said of the recent Super Bowl wins. "I think it's hard to believe."

For Vilela, a native of Billerica, Mass., there was never any question that she would be a Patriots fan. But cheerleading came a little later in her life.

Her first experience in after-school activities was the school band, for which she played trumpet and clarinet, starting in fifth grade. But by the time she was a high school junior, she switched from playing in the band to cheerleading for the football and basketball teams.

The change didn't go over too well with her parents.

"My parents were horrified: 'You want to be a cheerleader?'"

Vilela continued cheerleading in her college years at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where she graduated in 1989. Five years later she tried out for the Patriots cheerleading squad, along with nearly 600 other hopefuls. Vilela ended up being one of eight chosen.

Becoming a cheerleader turned her into the most dedicated of fans.

"Obviously, when I became a cheerleader, it was all over," she said.

Being a cheerleader got her close to the action, but she did not get the kind of unlimited access to the Patriots one might think, due to a zero-tolerance rule against fraternizing with the football players.

"They were allowed to talk to us, but we weren't allowed to talk to them," Vilela said.

Cheerleaders who broke the rule risked expulsion from the team. Once, a couple of cheerleaders who happened to be at the same night club as some of the players were booted from the squad for not leaving, Vilela said.

In 1998, Vilela left the Patriots cheerleading squad. With practice sessions on Tuesdays and all day Saturdays, along with games, charity promotions, autograph signings, and other events, being a cheerleader was more like a full-time job than the part-time hobby it was supposed to be.

After 1998, Vilela landed season tickets to the Patriots and has attended as many games as she can since then, although she has yet to go to another one of their Super Bowl appearances as a regular fan -- something she is counting on doing this year.

"I already think they're in it, put it that way," Vilela said.

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