Sunday, February 01, 2009

Her Dream Comes Cheerfully True 

Posted by James at 4:47 PM ET

By Mark Baker
The Eugene Register-Guard
She wasn’t good enough to make the Oregon Ducks cheerleading squad, although she was the Duck one season.

Jamie CardinalsNow, though, on the eve of her 31st birthday, Jaime Cooper’s cheerleading dreams have finally come true — in a Supercool way.

“I’m beside-myself excited,” said the 2000 University of Oregon graduate by cell phone from Phoenix, Ariz., before leaving Thursday for Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla. “I never even had the nerve to think I’d be in the Super Bowl.”

Be there today she will — as a member of the Arizona Cardinals Cheerleaders.

Cooper, who turns 31 Monday, is in her first year as a dancer with the Cardinals, who play in their first-ever Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. She tried out twice to become a UO cheerleader but did not make the final cuts. She then auditioned to be one of the students who performed as the Duck mascot during the 1996-97 school year and was selected.

Her dream, though, since she was 4 years old and watching football on TV with her dad in her hometown of Rialto, Calif., “was to dance in the NFL.”

Other kids would say they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or firefighters, Cooper said. “I said I wanted to be an NFL Cheerleader.”

That dream finally came true in 2007, when she made the squad of the Cincinnati Ben-Gals, cheerleaders for the National Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals.

“It was huge,” Cooper, who was known as Jaime Wiest (pronounced “West”) before marrying former UO football player Jason Cooper in 2004, said of finally making an NFL cheerleading squad. She spent a few years cheering for the Columbus (Ohio) Destroyers of the Arena Football League, and the Columbus Crew and the San Jose Earthquakes, both Major League Soccer teams. “I sacrificed a lot,” Cooper said. “I commuted two hours each way to go to practice,” she said of making the drive from Columbus to Cincinnati and back three times a week.

Her husband, though, got a job with Target’s corporate office in Phoenix before the end of the Bengals’ 2007 season, “which was devastating,” Jaime Cooper said of leaving the Ben-Gals. “I wasn’t sure if I’d get that opportunity again.”

However, she knew the Cardinals were in Phoenix, and she was determined to try out. She worked out for several months and took dance classes to hone her skills. Cooper, who holds down a full-time job in Pet­Smart’s corporate office in Phoenix, auditioned last April, along with hundreds of others. She made it through three cuts, and was one of 28 women between the ages of 18 and 33 to make the 2008 squad.

But the Super Bowl? Who would have predicted that in her first season there, the Cardinals would make the Super Bowl?

One of the NFL’s original teams in 1920 when they played in Racine, Wis., before moving to Chicago in 1922, the Cardinals have historically been one of the league’s most moribund franchises. (Their only NFL championship came in 1947).

Jamie CardinalsThere have been 42 previous Super Bowl games, dating to that first one on Jan. 15, 1967, in Los Angeles between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Cardinals, who were in St. Louis from 1960 to 1987, before moving to Phoenix in 1988, were one of only six NFL teams never to have played in the biggest football game on Earth prior to this season.

And when it comes to cheerleading, the Arizona Cardinals Cheerleaders won’t have any competition today at 65,857-seat Raymond James Stadium. The Steelers are one of six of the NFL’s 32 teams who have no cheerleaders, even though they were one of the first to have any at all, when the Steelerettes existed from 1961 to 1969.

The history of modern NFL cheerleading can be traced to 1972, when pro football’s best known dancers, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, debuted that season with their revealing, star-spangled blue-and-white outfits and knee-high boots. Football fans had never seen anything like it — athletic, drop-dead gorgeous women entertaining fans with intricately choreographed routines performed right on the field. The Cowboys cheerleaders were also the first to perform at a Super Bowl, when they appeared at Super Bowl X on Jan. 18, 1976, in Miami, when the Cowboys played the Steelers.

Asked if she always wanted to join the NFL’s most famous cheerleading crew, Jaime Cooper said with a laugh: “Yes, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that considering how Cardinals fans feel about the Cowboys.”

She’s just grateful to be on any squad, let alone one headed for the Super Bowl, even if NFL cheerleaders make a pittance. “It’s mostly gas money,” Cooper said. They do it for the love and the thrill of it all, she said. And the friendships. Most have full-time jobs or are college students.

“I can honestly say that I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever made,” said Cooper, who also is one of 13 members of the squad’s “show team” that travels the world performing at U.S. military bases from Mexico to Australia.

As for the Cardinals cheerleaders at today’s game, they will be confined to the sidelines as a matter of fairness since the Steelers have no cheerleading squad, according to Jaime Cooper’s mother, Carol Wiest of Eugene.

Carol and Patrick Wiest will host a Super Bowl party at their Eugene home today, while Jason Cooper will be in the stands in Tampa watching the game. Carol Wiest was able to see her daughter perform live for the first time as an NFL cheerleader on Oct. 5 when she saw the Buffalo Bills play the Cardinals at their home stadium in Glendale, Ariz. “That was really exciting,” Carol Wiest said. “I had tears in my eyes when she ran out on the field.”

Patrick Wiest got to see the NFC Championship game on Jan. 18 between the Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles in Glendale, and both of Jaime Cooper’s brothers, Kyle and Colin Wiest, a U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif. — made it to home games during the 2008 season.

“It was really important for me to have them there,” Cooper said. “They emotionally went on this journey with me.”

The Wiests relocated to Eugene from Rialto, which is next to San Bernardino in Southern California, soon after Jaime came to the UO in 1995. They wanted to get out of California, Carol Wiest said. All of the Wiests became instant Duck football fans, she said. They have season tickets and never miss a game.

Jaime’s brother, Kyle Wiest, is assistant director of football operations in the UO Athletic Department.

Jaime came to the UO because of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center in the UO’s Lindquist College of Business. She not only dreamed of becoming an NFL cheerleader, but also a sports agent, but that didn’t pan out for her, she said.

A cheerleader since junior high school in Rialto, she first wanted to make the Duck squad, always one of the nation’s best and notoriously difficult on which to land a spot.

“It was very competitive,” recalled Jamie Cooper, who also performed for the UO dance team.

“I do remember her as a Duck (mascot), but I do not remember her trying out (as a cheerleader),” said Laraine Raish, the UO’s cheerleading coach. About 100 UO women tryout out to make the squad annually, Raish said. About 25 women and 15 male cheerleaders make the Oregon squad each year.

Cooper said she’s never held any bitterness about not making it. “No,” she said. “I just have to assume that this was my journey. And this is where I’m supposed to be now.”

“Now” is the Super Bowl and, ironically, she just might be the first former Duck to perform as a cheerleader in the Super Bowl.

Raish said she did not know of any of her former cheerleaders performing in the world’s biggest football game, and the most-watched TV event in the nation every year.

“This is very exciting for her,” Raish said. “And it makes me mad that I can’t recall her (trying out).”

Too many names. Too many faces.

Jaime Cooper did not give up, though.

“I persevered,” Cooper said. “Resiliency is one of my better qualities.”

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