Monday, February 18, 2008
By Cheryl McCoy
Sitting back in an olive green T-shirt and cream-colored knit sweater, Katheryn Mueller doesn't command attention from students passing in and out of 2nd Storey. In fact, the straight blond hair draped over her shoulders is practically a staple on campus. But as she speaks, it's not just the Midwestern twang that's unexpected.
"I just like every Sunday being able to perform in front of 70,000 people," the junior says, her soft voice belying a very public presence. But despite her casual tone, the words "Eagles Cheerleader" perk more than a few ears in the room.
For the past year Mueller's time has been consumed by practices, photo shoots and game days as Philadelphia football's first line of support. And, oh yeah, she has a full academic course load, too. But like a true cheerleader, Mueller turns it up when the pressure's on - and does it with a smile.
Mueller never intended to be a cheerleader. Actually, her decision to audition sophomore year was pretty much the epitome of "on a whim." She signed up with a few fellow members of Villanova's dance team, thinking it would be "just for fun."
Then Mueller made the first cut.
The month-long audition process was, well, less than pleasant: two auditions on the first day, then a semi-final round. Auditions were based solely on dancing - basically, learn the counts and perform flawlessly, but do it faster and better than the rest. Mueller was in her element.
Then she made the final round.
Cue fitness exams, interviews and prancing across the stage in a swimsuit.
"I had never done anything like that before," Mueller says. "It was more like a pageant … but it was a fun process looking back on it."
When Mueller won a coveted spot on the team, the reveal wasn't exactly a big production. No flock of anxious hopefuls. No flowers. No tears of joy and cries of rejection. Just a hotline.
"I called from Sullivan," she says, as if she's talking about ordering from Wingers. Her name was on the list.
Katheryn (second from the left) at Chickie's & Pete's
"I was excited I made it, but it was more relief because the audition process was so grueling and stressful," she says.
Mueller never cheered in high school, but she loved to dance. And fortunately, the move from the dance studio to Eagles turf wasn't so much buh-bye tutus as hello pom poms.
"Really, in the NFL, we're more dance-focused than collegiate cheer squads," she says.
Mueller began dancing when she was about 3 or 4 years old, learning how to shuffle-step when most kids thought sand and a bucket meant a good time. She took tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop - anything that married music and motion. But even then, football was standing in the wings. Her dance coaches were former cheerleaders for the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs.
The pigskin has always been present at the Mueller home in Leawood, Kansas. Her brother is on the high school football team, and her father played for University of Kansas. While growing up, Mueller's Sunday afternoons centered on the kickoff.
"We would gather in the living room, my mom would put out little finger foods, and we'd watch the game," she says.
Mueller's father never stepped foot on a pro field, but now he's living out his dream through her fancy feat.
"It's been like his way of getting into the NFL," she says.
Well, kind of.
The cheerleaders have "very limited" contact with the players, Mueller says. She met Donovan McNabb last December at an Eagles Christmas party, but for the most part, the football and cheerleading teams stick to their zones. With stats, scores and schedules - not to mention salaries - on everyone's minds, there is little opportunity for interaction on or off the field.
"On game days, they're there to do their job, and we're there to do ours," she says.
Nevertheless, Mueller has her favorite.
"Brian Westbrook," she says. "He's a Villanova alum, and the fans just love him."
Working the sidelines certainly has some perks - Mueller gets free tickets for family and friends, and she has a front row seat to the action every week - but it's not exactly a flashbulb fantasy.
"There is a lot of glamour that comes with it," she says. "But behind the scenes, there's a lot of hard work and sacrifices to make."
Preparations for a game day used to involve flipping on the TV and strategizing effective snacking. Now, Mueller rises at 7 a.m. and heads to work.
"I don't have Sundays," she says with a blunt shrug.
While most students spend the morning sleeping in or nursing hangovers, Mueller greets fans and signs autographs outside Lincoln Financial Field. Her face crinkles when she says "fans," as if she still thinks her celeb status is a dream. The Eagles cheerleaders gather for rehearsal before heading to hair and make up. Professional primping is a team perk, but with 38 members, the tangle of time and tresses tends to hamper the thrill. Powdered and peppy, the squad stops by the Fan Zone or greets a few VIPs before heading onto the field for their pregame routine. Energies crescendo as the cheerleaders form the tunnel lineup. Mueller says watching the players thunder onto the field is "one of the most exciting" parts of her day.
"And then the game!" she says, taking a breath.
But even after she clocks out, Mueller's day isn't over. She battles traffic amid the mass exodus of fans, and then flops down in her apartment to start homework. Practice days aren't any easier. Twice a week, Mueller leaves campus at 5 a.m. for an intense four- or five-hour dance session at South Philly's Bally Total Fitness. She gets home just in time to head to class.
"It's extremely hard to leave at 5 a.m. and not get back until midnight," Mueller says. All-in-all, she works about 25 to 30 hours a week on top of taking five classes.
An accounting and finance double major with a Spanish minor, Mueller says balancing school and work didn't come easy.
"It was overwhelming at first, but I've got it down now," she says.
In fact, since the Eagles' season ended in December, Mueller feels lost without a packed schedule.
Last May, however, Mueller had a veritable baptism of fire when she joined the Eagles flock. As a new member, her first duty was to fly to Mexico. But this was hardly a sipping-daiquiris-by-the-cabana vacation. Mueller was there for a calendar photo shoot. In her bikini. During finals week.
Mueller managed to take her finals a week early but still had to deal with the sudden rush of attention - at that point, she still had yet to grace the field in her uniform.
"Getting in front of a camera and posing in a swimsuit was something new for me," she says. Since then, Mueller has adjusted to the media and microphones, but she insists things haven't changed on campus.
"There is a bit of a feeling of celebrity - when you're in your uniform, not just being Katheryn at school," she says.
But when you're 20 years old, gorgeous and plastered on calendars and trading cards, there's bound to be a creepy fan or two.
"You encounter all sorts of people," Mueller says, remaining ever so polite and politically correct. "But we have security, so they take care of any problems. But, yeah, occasionally you have your overzealous fan."
Articulate and impassioned, Mueller seems most irked by the stereotype that accompanies the images. Far from the pigtailed bimbo best personified by Brittany on MTV's "Daria," the Eagles cheerleaders offer some enviable resumes. Ranging from 18 to 38 years old, the women are in graphic design, pharmaceuticals, education and business, among other professions. Some are earning college degrees. Others are married and raising children.
"The girls on the team are extremely talented, well-rounded women," Mueller says.
Oh, and they do philanthropy work, too. The squad visits hospitals and, this past year, built a playground. They also work closely with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, spreading awareness through the power of pink pom poms. This spring, the team is planning a goodwill military tour in Afghanistan.
As much as she's enjoyed her brush with fame, Mueller's also a realist. And apparently, a businesswoman at heart.
"I don't see myself taking this professional cheering past college," she says.
After graduation, Mueller hopes to work at an investment bank in New York. Eventually, she might move back to the Midwest. Mueller likes the "fast pace" of New York but says, "I couldn't see myself doing it forever."
But G-Day is a whole year away, and in the world of professional cheerleading, no one gets a free ride. So if Mueller wants to stick with the feathered flock until Commencement, she'll have to re-audition in about a month. She plans to sign up for another round of grueling trials all in the name of glamour, hardship and the pigskin, but she's also keeping her options open. Think summer internship on Wall Street.
But whether Mueller watches next year's season from her living room or the sidelines, she won't turn in her dancing shoes.
"I'm not going to be able to do this forever, but I can't imagine it not in my life," she says.
After all, those little girls can't learn shuffle-step without an instructor.