ATLANTA – Napoleon Jinnies described his walk through the double doors of USC’s Galen Center on March 11 as a claws-out, “I have to put on my jazz shoes”-type feeling.
Then he saw, amid a sea of fellow dancers, another guy in the corner.
“I was fired up,” Jinnies told USA TODAY Sports, “to kick whoever’s butt that was.”
What were the chances?
No male had ever tried out for the Rams cheer squad in the franchise’s 80-plus years, though auditions had never technically specified gender. A few men had registered, Rams cheer director Keely Fimbres said, but never showed. Now Jinnies and Quinton Peron did. Peron reckoned maybe he could at least be a mascot if his technique held up.
But once he landed kicks, jumps and turns well enough to advance to the second round of tryouts, Peron realized that maybe the Rams really were providing a chance to cheer. A slight intimidation set in.
“Seeing the hair, seeing the rhinestoned outfits and all the makeup like, ‘Oh, shoot,’” Peron told USA TODAY Sports. “All the tans and you’re like, ‘Whoa, what did I step into? Am I sure I want to do this?’”
Ten months later, the duo will join their 38 female teammates on the field Sunday and become the first men to be designated as cheerleaders who do the dance routines in Super Bowl history. (The Ravens had what are described as stunt men in Super Bowl XLVII, and according to spokesman Chad Steele, they are referred to as cheerleaders now. When the team played in the Super Bowl in 2013, the website called them “the male stunt team.”)
Men have been in cheer squads at the high school and collegiate level for decades, so for a team run by female owner Georgia Frontiere for 30 years, that hired the youngest-ever head coach in Sean McVay at 30 and preaches “pioneering with purpose,” why not?
“Our organization is so badass,” Jinnies said. “Just get the job done.”
Molly Higgins, team vice president of community affairs and engagement, agreed.
“If you have the talent and skill set, you shouldn’t be discriminated on the basis of sex,” Higgins said. “I’m proud it didn’t scare us.”
Logistically, the Rams say, welcoming a coed cheer squad was easy. Their uniform designer crafted blue, gold and white short-sleeve shirts and pants to match the girls’ crop tops and shorts, leaving out the pompoms per the guys’ requests. Music now features more Meghan Trainor and T-Pain, less “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Single Ladies.” The cheerleaders reside comfortably in one locker-room trailer, unafraid to ask a teammate to turn around if someone’s changing.
Some disdain has trickled in from the stands and social media. Maybe “one or two” season ticket holders requested refunds on their purchases, according to Higgins, and the organization granted them. But fans still scream “NAPOLEON” and “QUINTON.” Peron, who also teaches dance, received excited texts supporting “Mr. Q.” And that slightly aggressive stranger on the sidewalk who scoffed at the thought of men in crop tops and big hair? By conversation’s end, he was wishing Peron and Jinnies good luck.
“People just need to open their minds a little bit,” Peron said. “Males dancing with females is nothing new.”
Cheerleading has evolved the last couple decades, Fimbres said, with less emphasis on teased big hair, more on technically sound dance and community ambassadorship.
The latest showcase will be on the biggest stage yet. The Rams say they are already seeing dancers across the country reach out excitedly, from older men wishing they had the opportunity to younger ones saying Peron and Jinnies’ leap of faith gave them the confidence to try out for their own dance squad.
“When you always do something then all of a sudden you’re quote famous for it, a trailblazer inspiring other people, it feels a little funny,” Jinnies said, “because you don’t see yourself in that light.
“But if it’s inspiring people, helping motivate them not just in dance but in any goal, I’ll take it.”
Added Higgins: “My hope is that this is going to become the new normal.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein