March 22, 2007

In between bites of his iceberg lettuce salad, Eric Cusimano details the ins and outs of his life as the sole male member of Georgetown's cheerleading squad. Sporting khakis, a white baseball hat and black fleece, Cusimano is the picture of the Joe Hoya stereotype; at a superficial glance, you might guess that his extracurricular activities were confined to intramural basketball and slap bag. Instead, the freshman from Louisiana devotes his spare time to performing acrobatic feats, leading frenzied cheers and getting up close and personal with the smiling, be-ribboned girls ESPN cameramen love to spotlight.

In the heat of a basketball game Cusimano's polished dinner mannerisms melt away; the khakis are replaced by full cheering raiment -- navy pants and shirt with "Hoyas" emblazoned across the chest -- and he exudes an unmistakable intensity striding up and down the baseline as he fiercely leads cheers with the aide of an old-fashioned megaphone.

Cusimano is no newcomer to the cheerleading arena, however. His stepmother coaches his high school squad and in his senior year, when the team was lacking in numbers, she asked him to cheer. After letting the idea "sizzle for a few days," Cusimano says he decided to help them out. He's been at it ever since, even emailing Georgetown's coach prior to the school year to discuss his possible involvement on the collegiate level.

Earlier this month Cusimano got a taste of the big time as he, along with fellow dewy-eyed Hoya newcomers DaJuan Summers, Jeremiah Rivers and Vernon Macklin dazzled beneath the lights of Madison Square Garden at the Big East tournament. The freshman says that he underestimated the excitement of play in Big Apple. Despite the pressures of dueling TV timeout performances and the intimidating intensity of more experienced squads such as the Touchdown Jesus-inspired "Gold Squad" of Notre Dame, he insists that Georgetown cheerleading "held our own." And though Bring It On made the world think otherwise, Cusimano insists that relations between the squads were civil and that the Hoyas stuck to a no-trash-talk policy throughout the tournament.

Most Hoyas basketball fans could identify Cusimano as the guy who performs the flag run before every home game, a ritual that he relishes. White court shoes flashing, he emerges from the tunnel and sprints onto the floor, straight-backed and tight-lipped as he holds the 20-foot Georgetown flag aloft, stopping at center court to swing the standard dramatically before exiting.

The job of flag-bearer is not without its hazards, however, as Cusimano discovered during warm-ups at the Villanova game earlier this season. While performing his usual half-court routine, Villanova guard Mike Nardi became enraged with Cusimano after he appeared to be hit with the flag while going for a ball. Cusimano denies that he struck the 6-foot-2 senior, but admits that he was a little intimidated by Nardi's aggressive reaction to the incident. "I apologized after the game in the tunnel" Cusimano says, "but I don't know if he heard."

Cusimano's large class ring glints as he rests his hands on the table and speaks with a knowing air about the regional differences in cheerleading. Though he has no bayou drawl, there is a glint of southern affectation in Cusimano's voice as he informs me that "the further to the south, the more male influence you'll find in the sport."

Perhaps it is due to this cultural acceptance that Cusimano appears so comfortable in his position as a male cheerleader; President George W. Bush is another southern boy who found his niche in college through his participation in the sport. The fact that the team is overwhelmingly female does not seem to daunt Cusimano, who says that the girls have "been very accommodating."

In an example of such accommodation, the squad's coach made special care packages for each cheerleader to enjoy during their trip to New York for the Big East tournament. The care packages for the girls consisted of what Cusimano termed "feminine products" (he did not elaborate on the contents) but his was duly masculine, with a razor, shaving gel and deodorant included. Cusimano appreciated the gesture, though he insists of his toilette, "I have my own system." Ever hygienically conscious, Cusimano sticks to Bond brand deodorant and unlike other teenage boys, washes his uniform before every game.

In addition to his infamous flag run, Cusimano is working on incorporating other elements of showmanship into his performances. When I mention the flips he executes during the halftime show, he smiles. "So you noticed? That's good!"

Though Cusimano's solidly muscular and compact build could easily blend into any posse of male gymnasts (he played football in high school), he never had any acrobatic training until this summer, when he began to take classes in preparation for his move to college cheerleading.

In fact, the first time he performed a flip by himself was on the eventful afternoon of the Villanova game. But it is obvious that Cusimano now takes his acrobatics seriously; he tapes his wrists before games to prevent injury and has dropped from 185 pounds to 175 in part to increase the ease with which he can flip his body (though he claims that he is a "lifelong dieter" anyway).

As is true with any sports team, Cusimano says he spends a fair amount of time with his compatriots. In addition to two practices a week, he works out with the other cheerleaders, "I lift with the girls as much as I can," he says. "Granted, them spotting me is a little difficult."

But his relations with the girls are strictly platonic; he shies away from the complications of inter-squad romance and says bluntly, "I don't date anyone I cheer with."

Indeed, it is clear that Cusimano isn't just in it for the short skirts. He takes his cheering seriously and has a pre-game ritual as involved as any compulsively superstitious slugger's. His routine begins the night before, when he lays out his uniform, (which he stores separately from the rest of his wardrobe); on the way to the game he pops two Advil and a Sudafed, and once he reaches the Verizon Center he applies his tape and dons sweatbands which he admits are "more or less just for show." His pregame soundtrack is just as important for mental preparation; he has separate playlists that he listens to during the ride to the game and the warm-up, and he has a third one on hand in case there is some lag time before tip-off. The last song he listens to before gametime is Heart of a Champion by Nelly.

When asked about any additions to his ritual in the postseason, Cusimano readily admits to finding inspiration from Russell Crowe's portrayal of a rugged Roman fighter in Gladiator. "It's more of a cheerleading pump-up movie than most people think" he says of the decidedly testosterone-heavy flick.

Like Maximus, who sees himself an ordinary stiff in the lion pit, Cusimano considers himself as just another member of the squad -- almost. When asked if he ever dances with the team in their foot-stomping, booty-shaking routine, Cusimano demurs. "Not yet, but it may happen."

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