Everybody Needs a Cheerleader
Friday night football games are a right of passage for America’s youth. A time where the children of today—the adults of tomorrow—take center stage in their community. A typical game day at Average Joe High School features a pep rally and send off for the football team – an entire community embracing its own. The game itself is attended by the whole student body, the whole community…the whole world seems within reach for the players, the cheerleaders, the band, and the students. Those fantastical moments in high school are the pillars of strength that young men and women draw upon when heading out into the world for themselves.
Life is a little different at Gainesville State School. This school, 75 miles north of Dallas, is behind barbed wire. All “students” wake at dawn to the sound of their cell doors clanking open. They march from class to class. And those showing promise—those seeking redemption—are afforded the privilege of playing on the football team.
The Gainesville State School Tornadoes play football to forget their past. They play to be part of something greater than the life they’ve known. They play for a chance—just a chance—to be seen as more than convicted criminals.
Their shoulder pads are almost a decade old and I’d bet their helmets wouldn’t meet the standards of my six-year-old son’s flag football team. But they wear their tattered uniforms with pride. Being a football player at Gainesville State is an honor — not everyone can play. The players have to maintain good grades and citizenship behind the fences that barricade them from the rest of the world — locked away from a carefree youth that their counterparts on the outside enjoy. Some players never had a family. Some players have been disowned by their families. But all the players from Gainesville State School found a new family with the fans of Grapevine Faith Christian School.
Kris Hogan, The Grapevine Faith Head Coach wanted to do something special for the players of Gainesville State who have to play all their games on the road. So he gathered the Faithful and asked them to cheer for the other team. Splitting their fans and cheerleaders in half, they gave the Tornadoes something unimaginable: Encouragement. Support. A sense of belonging. They were no longer thugs; that night they were just like every other high school football team in Texas.
For the first time ever, the Tornadoes ran through a crowd of fans and tore through the paper run-through the Faithful had made them. For the first time, they heard the roar of a crowd—led by cheerleaders—cheering for them. For the first time they had fans on their side. The Tornadoes’ “fans” cheered, and cheered and cheered!
Gainesville State lost that night, but it didn’t matter. When the armed police officers escorted them back to their bus, the Tornadoes were smiling. The tornadic forces that had been so destructive in their life thus far had settled — at least for one magical night. Though they finished the 2009 season 0-9, someone had cheered for them. Someone had believed.
I wonder if these young men had cheerleaders growing up. I wonder if their path would have led to prison had they heard words of encouragement as children. I wonder if they ever felt anyone was on their side before this football game.
Cheering for the Tornadoes of Gainesville State School doesn’t negate their transgressions. But it does give them hope for the future. Everybody deserves a cheerleader.
– Jenni Parrish