By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The nerves will be churning for Erica Downard when the Marshall football team opens its 2013 season on Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio).
That’s because Downard will get her first chance to cheer in front of an audience of more than 30,000 Green-and-White clad fans, a significantly larger crowd than she performed for at Princeton athletic events.
“The biggest challenge for me right now is anticipating the crowd for the first game,” Downard said. “You go from Princeton where you might have a thousand people at a game to having thousands of people at a game, it is going to be crazy. It is nerve-whacking for sure.”
Downard isn’t the only local product who will be leading the cheers for Marshall athletics. Bluefield resident Kevin Brooks is a rising junior and a male cheerleader for the Thundering Herd.
“It is going fine, it is an experience I never thought I would have and it is a great way to stay in shape and meet new people,” Brooks said. “We get to all the football games and most of the basketball games so it is really fun.”
It is also hard work. Don’t think cheerleaders are athletes? Think again.
“Going to Princeton trials, it is just not as hard, but when you go to Marshall it is a completely different ball game, you go in with expectations of an athlete,” said Downard, who made the cheer squad during tryouts in April. “People think cheerleading isn’t a sport, but we actually have workouts where we have to be well trained and pass those requirements so it is very difficult.”
Brooks, who wasn’t a cheerleader at Bluefield, agrees.
“For the guys it is easier to make the team, the girls have it a lot more rougher than we do, but it is still competitive,” Brooks said. “You are going to have to be able to throw the girls consistently and just display your talents..It can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing...
“The biggest challenge is probably having the stamina and strength to keep up throughout a whole routine. It really takes a lot of concentration that you wouldn’t think of. The girls really make us look good.”
Both Downard and Brooks represented Marshall last Tuesday in Princeton at the Marshall Coaches Tour.
No one was happier to be there than Downard, which was evident by a large smile.
“My parents are beyond proud of me,” Downard said. “They have seen how hard I worked lately and so they are proud of me. They are happy for me, I have put in a lot of hard work and dedication to this and I finally made it.”
Downard, who spent three years as a cheerleader at Princeton Middle School, and three more at the high school, dreamed of following in the footsteps of an Marshall alumnus at the next level.
“All my life,” Downard said. “My cousin, Ann Downard, went to Marshall when I was like 6 and I wanted to follow in her footsteps ever since then, she is my role model.”
Brooks never had such aspirations. He just answered a call for help.
“My roommate was the mascot and they needed help so I started doing mascot, but it transformed into being a cheerleader,” Brooks said. “We had tryouts, I decided my sophomore year I wanted to be a cheerleader and I tried out and I made the team and I have stuck with it every since.”
One of several athletes from the most recent graduating class at Princeton to commit to playing sports at Marshall, Downard will join the likes of McKenzie Akers (women’s basketball), Jessica Inman (women’s soccer) and Chad Wyrick (football) in Huntington in the fall.
“They are doing really well,” said Downard, of Marshall focusing on local athletes. “We have a lot of athletes in our senior class that are good and will move on to Division I and Marshall is our to-go place.”
A double major (business marketing and management) who is also an athlete will provide a tall task ahead for the Princeton product, but Downard won’t let a difficult schedule keep her from cheering on the Herd.
“It is going to be challenging, but I am going to make sure I make it work because this is a dream come true and I am not going to let it go,” Downard said.
Brooks feels much the same.
“I am going to keep doing it as long as I make the team,” he said.
While Downard likes football best, she admits that basketball is where the cheerleaders get seen the most. Still, she is looking forward to that first football game slated in less than three months.
“Yes, I have been dreaming about this first game since I was little so the first game is going to be like the most amazing thing to ever happen to me,” Downard said. “I am extremely excited about it.”
—Contact Brian Woodson