As the NFL welcomed its first male cheerleaders this season and made headlines around the country, two Turlock boys have been busy silently breaking down barriers of their own as the first to step onto the sidelines at their own respective schools.
Visitors to Pitman High varsity and Turlock High junior varsity football games have most likely noticed Pride cheerleader Kevin Romo and Bulldog cheerleader Erik Carbajal leading chants and performing dances as the two schools’ first male participants on the cheer squad — an accomplishment for the two which hasn’t come without its fair share of hard work, determination and cartwheeling over stereotypes of what a cheerleader should look like.
“For our town, when something that’s different happens it’s definitely a big deal, especially when you’re a man trying to join anything female-dominated,” Romo said. “For the longest time you’ve seen girls being cheerleaders and they’ve already set such a high level that you have to reach, so when you’re the only guy on a team full of girls it’s something you have to fight for.”
Romo, a junior at Pitman, is cheering as part of the varsity squad for the first time this year after participating as a junior varsity cheerleader last season. He was the first to ever do so at Pitman. At Turlock, Carbajal is a sophomore. After failing to make the cheer team his freshman year, he came back to try out again this season and made the junior varsity team and is the first male Bulldog cheerleader.
“This last year the tryout was a super hard dance and it was challenging for everybody — even people that were on the team last year didn’t make it,” Carbajal said. “It’s definitely a place where you have to prove your worth and if you make the team, you have to prove you deserve to be there when you’re on the field because you were chosen and other people would give anything to be on the team.”
For every ounce of sweat the football teams put into preparing for each Friday’s game, the cheerleaders work just as hard, memorizing routines, cheers, stunts and more. Both Romo and Carbajal decided to try and become their schools’ first male cheerleaders because of their love for dance, they said, but it wouldn’t have been possible to overcome the stigma without their support systems.
“I’ve heard and seen stuff go down…like people talking about me being a cheerleader but the fact that I have such a big support group around me — my class, my whole school, the community — overpowers all those little things you hear,” Romo said. “I just push it to the side because I know I have an entire army standing beside me.”
The cheerleading squads of two NFL teams this year, the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints, welcomed the first-ever male participants in the league: Napoleon Jinnies and Quinton Peron are part of the Rams squad, while Jesse Hernandez was the first male to be named to the Saints’ Saintsations. While some teams in past years have included male stuntmen, they are not considered part of the cheerleading squads, which perform dances on the sidelines and on the field during games.
For Carbajal, male cheerleaders on a squad no matter what level is a step in the right direction.
“It’s a change towards equality,” he said.
There are many benefits to having guys on the squad, Carbajal added, like added strength at the bottom of stunts during routines.
“People say the stunts I work with look a lot better because they go up higher and they’re cleaner,” he said.
“With stunting it helps a lot,” Romo said. “With more power on the stunts, your baskets go higher and your fliers are lighter to the bases, so it’s easier.”
As a second-year cheerleader, support from his peers has pushed away any negativity that Romo has received. The Friday nights under the bright lights of Joe Debely Stadium have made all of his hard work worth it, he said.
“It’s definitely like you’re in a daze…it’s just crazy that I’m on varsity now and am performing for the big crowd. We’re the ones everyone wants to see,” Romo said. “Those types of moments, like those little cliché movie moments, are what I live for and it’s what makes me want to do cheer even more.”
Carbajal hopes to make the varsity team next year, he said. Cheerleading has given him the opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than himself, which is an opportunity he wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to experience in high school.
“It’s cool to know I have friends on a team. I never thought that I could be on a team because I’m not very athletic…I don’t catch very well, I don’t run,” Carbajal said. “This is the kind of thing I feel like I’m meant for.”
Both Carbajal and Romo are aware that some people might think boys belong on the football field, not cheering on the sidelines. To any boys that may feel more comfortable dancing than being tackled, the pair had some advice.
“Just go for it. Even if that boundary is there, jump through that hurdle, break that boundary and just do it,” Romo said. “No one is going to stop you except for yourself.”
“You have to not care what other people think of you,” Carbajal added. “You can’t think, ‘People are going to say bad things about me, so I’m just going to go be on the football team because I’m a boy.’ If you want to do something, put in the effort to do it.”