Thursday, January 29, 2009
By Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
The Aspen Times
Kristen Purnell is still pinching herself.
Less than a year ago, the Aspen High graduate was completing a dual degree in public relations and advertising at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and contemplating her future.
Ask her if she could ever have pictured this weekend, and Purnell says she would have laughed. Thursday, she’ll hop a flight from Phoenix to Tampa, Fla. On Sunday, the former ballet student and current Arizona Cardinals Cheerleader will perform on the field at Super Bowl XLIII.
“Every time I see a commercial for the Super Bowl or turn on ESPN, I have to take a deep breath,” Purnell wrote in an e-mail to The Aspen Times on Sunday. “There are times in the day when I just stop and smile. I can’t believe I’m going to the Super Bowl. I am going to be on the field. I don’t know if it will completely sink in until I get home.”
It’s been quite a rookie campaign.
Purnell admits that, upon surviving a rigorous tryout and making the Cardinals Cheerleading team in April, her expectations were modest. After all, Arizona had not won a home playoff game since 1947, and its streak of 61 years without a title is the second longest in professional sports history — only the Chicago Cubs have experienced a more extensive stretch of futility.
“I was just looking for the Cards to have a winning season. … Everyone’s hopes at the beginning of the year were geared toward making the playoffs,” she said. “No one expected this.”
Arizona clinched the decidedly watered-down NFC West with a win over St. Louis on Dec. 8. The division title was the franchise’s first since 1975, when it called St. Louis home.
Despite dropping three of their final five, the Cardinals hosted Atlanta on wild card weekend. After a 30-24 victory, the improbable run continued as Arizona pulled off a 33-13 stunner against No. 2-seeded Carolina — its first win in six games in the Eastern time zone.
After an Eagles victory over the defending-champion Giants, the Cardinals learned they would host the NFC championship. Purnell remembers the scene well.
“When we came through the tunnel for playoff introductions I was in awe,” she said. “The stadium was buzzing, and the energy was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Looking up at the sea of white and red, I knew we had a really good chance of winning. … the entire game I couldn’t hear a thing.”
Optimism abounded after the Cardinals took a 24-6 halftime lead. But Purnell admitted her heart started to drop when Philadelphia mounted a second-half surge. “By the time they scored their last touchdown in the fourth [to take a 25-24 lead], I was at the point of hyperventilation,” she said.
Battle-tested quarterback Kurt Warner strung together a late drive, however, and Purnell and her fellow cheerleaders were celebrating as the final minute ticked off the clock.
Purnell remembers the tears of joy. She remembers the video screen centering on an older man and seeing tears in his eyes. She remembers confetti falling from the ceiling of University of Phoenix Stadium, and not quite knowing what to do as she stood near midfield.
“For those girls with four years on the team who cheered at Sun Devil Stadium in 115-degree weather only to see their team lose, this was the culmination for them,” she wrote. “… It was the most exciting experience I have ever had.”
Now, Super Bowl fever has hit the desert like a late-July heat wave.
While she admits the past few weeks have been a whirlwind, Purnell said she’s doing her best to soak it all in.
“It always used to be the Suns or the Diamondbacks, but now every other person has a bird head on their car and a red hat on their head,” she said. “It is exactly what this state needed.
“... Now when I drive to practice I see people camped out with signs in front of the training facility begging for Super Bowl tickets. I’ve never seen anything like it. … Cheering in a professional game has been a dream of mine for a long time, but to have the opportunity to cheer at the most watched sporting event in the world is surreal. How do you prepare yourself for that?”
Since the age of 4, when she started performing with Aspen Ballet, Purnell harbored visions of dancing professionally. That feeling intensified as she continued her training with Dance Progressions, where she studied jazz, hip-hop and lyrical dance.
She went on to found Aspen High’s dance troop, Ruckus, then became a member of dance squad at Northern Arizona, which she coached during her junior and senior years. During her final year, the group finished fourth at the Universal Dance Association’s Collegiate National Championships at Walt Disney World in Florida.
She always figured she would cheer for her beloved Broncos — her favorite player remains recently retired safety John Lynch, and she is distraught over Mike Shanahan’s firing. (“It was sacrilege to fire Shanahan,” she wrote. “I envy the team that he will coach next year.”) Purnell had the chance to cheer in a Broncos-Cardinals preseason game, and admitted that she forgot who she was cheering for on more than one occasion.
At the urging of friend and mentor Heather Karburg, who went from directing Northern Arizona’s dance team to heading the Cardinals Cheerleaders, Purnell decided to try out for Arizona in April.
Nearly 200 women showed up to vie for 28 spots. Purnell survived multiple rounds of cuts and an interview. After a week of practices with 44 other finalists, the cheerleading team was announced on the Cardinals’ website.
Purnell’s family and friends have been enjoying the ride ever since.
Her mom, Kelley, now dons a Cardinals purse and went to three games this year. The whole family traveled to Glendale, Ariz., for the Nov. 10 win on Monday Night Football over San Francisco.
“My mom loves to tell everyone what I do now, and I never thought she would know the ins and outs of football like she does,” wrote Purnell, who says she receives periodic texts from friends who catch a glimpse of her recognizable red hair on television. “My sisters love to tell me when I am and when I’m not on TV. It’s cool to see them start to become football fans, too. It has definitely become a family affair.”
Friends and family have been realistic about ticket requests these past two weeks — “They are in such high demand and the prices are insane, so I think maybe they know not to ask,” she wrote. But they’ll be watching come Sunday, likely wearing red instead of the traditional orange and blue that becomes customary during football season.
As the game approaches, Purnell admitted to having some mixed emotions.
“On one hand, I have never been so excited. This is the chance of a lifetime, and I want to soak it all in,” she wrote. “On the other hand. I find myself not breathing because if I mess up, there are millions of people watching us. I thought being in Aspen and seeing the X Games was a big deal, but this is it. There is no bigger event.
“I went from a town of 10,000 to a crowd of 60,000 each Sunday, and now to the biggest stage in sports. I don’t always know what to do with myself. [I] hope I can handle it.”