What a difference a New Year’s Day makes. On New Year’s Day, 1982, I was a USC yell leader with a love hangover at the Fiesta Bowl. On New Year’s Day, 1984, I was a UCLA cheerleader preparing for the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl while ill with a very severe holiday flu.
How did I go from a USC yell leader to a UCLA cheerleader? To quote the main character of my fourth novel, Walt Loves the Bearcat: “I started out at SC, transferred and graduated from UCLA. Cheered two years for both with a year off in between due to transfer status.”
Ergo, the shift in realities, not to mention uniforms, teams, colors and circumstances. What can I say? I had my college dreams and I was one ambitious brutha.
My older sister taught me cheerleading when I was a seven years old. From that moment on, I became a cheerleader. By college, it was only natural to do what I do best at whatever school I attended. Duh! LOL
Why did I switched from USC to UCLA? To paraphrase Walt Loves the Bearcat: “… half my financial aid dried up as soon as Reagan got in office. Plus, it didn’t help being called nigger while walking by the USC Sigma Chi house the week before school started in 1980.”
Cut to me cheering for UCLA vs. Illinois in the Rose Bowl in 1984. Oh, yeah, and then there’s me cheering for UCLA vs. Miami in said Fiesta Bowl in 1985, but that’s another story, and not the one I’m re-telling here. LOL
On New Year’s Day, 1984, I was a UCLA cheerleader preparing for the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl while ill with a very severe holiday flu. Because Jan 1 occurred on a Sunday, everything was delayed a day (mustn’t conflict God, or was it pro football?)
The 6-4-1 Bruins were up against a 10-1 Illinois Illini team that saw itself as All That. Being a cheerleader is hard work. We had all kinds of duties and appearances. One frigid night found us doing stunts and pyramids at Disneyland. And I was ill. Kinda makes a young nigger long for the sunny days of the USC vs. Penn State, 1982 Fiesta Bowl. We went on a pony ride in the desert! It was warm!
Anyway, the Rose Bowl was a good experience, despite my holiday flu. The Bruins thumped Illinois 45-9, canceling the Illini’s dreams of being All That. UCLA QB Rick Neuheisel engineered the Rose Bowl repeat and was named MVP.
After the game, I crashed, literally, at a cheerbud’s pad, and while he and his family went out to celebrate all that was good in our UCLA world, I fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV as Miami and Nebraska battled to some wild and crazy finish in the Orange Bowl …
The next morning, I awoke to a whole new world, and one filled with more than college and cheerleading. My life was now a matter of survival and, oh, why don’t we just cut to a clip from Walt Loves the Bearcat, where a black male cheerleader named Marcus tells a remarkably similar story:
Excerpt from Walt Loves the Bearcat
The Rose Bowl at the dawn of 1984 had done him in. The holiday flu inside his weakened body did not appreciate cheerleading eight miles along a parade route in Pasadena, then cheering for an entire football game in a stadium full of 100,000 folks. By nightfall, UCLA had routed the Illinois Fighting Illini, 45-9, and the “holiday flu” had KO’d the Bruins’ first black male cheerleader in years.
By morning, Marcus was half-dead at Student Health.
“Are you gay?” asked the ancient female doctor after he relayed his symptoms.
“No,” scoffed Marcus, taking up the tone of an indignant New Yorker. “What—is this, like, similar to …”
Those four little letters—a i d s—were cropping up more and more around the periphery of his world, slowly replacing herpes as the Sexual Disease of the Day. “Yeah, and they have this new thing that can kill ya,” said a man at a bathhouse once. Another time, while driving with the other cheerleaders, they had spotted hundreds of men walking at night, holding candles by the Federal Building near campus.
“Those are the fags doing a vigil because they’re all dying,” said Heather, the girl with the highest hip quotient of anyone on the squad.
They have this new thing that can kill ya. The fags are all dying. Those were the only two things anyone ever said to 21-year-old Marcus Coleman about the disease until 125-year-old Dr. Battle Axe asked him: “Are you gay?”
Of course, he said no. He was the 6’4”, athlete-looking, “straight” black cheerleader in a decent white fraternity, the cheerleader some of the football players respected, according to their cheerleader girlfriends. “Yeah, Coleman’s the only cool one,” was one lineman’s glowing review. Marcus was living a lifelong dream, and in his dream, he wasn’t gay and everybody played along.
“Have it your way, cheer queer,” Dr. Battle Axe may as well have said as she stared into his jaundiced eyes. She sent him away that day with a truth he couldn’t deny, hepatitis B, which left him a lone option: return home to recover from his very first STD.
Leaving school, even temporarily, felt like dropping out, just as his brothers had done before him. Their downfall had been broken hoop dreams. Marcus’ downfall had been the lofty sport of fag sex. His secret junkets to the dark places where grown men hunted for anonymous sex had finally caught up with him. And if he had contracted hepatitis from a stranger, and if Dr. Battle Axe had immediately thought of aids, he wondered what else might he have acquired? And if hepatitis made him feel this ill, what about this thing called aids lurking around, not even identified as a virus yet, only as a killer of the males he was having sex with when he wasn’t busy living the college high life.
—from Walt Loves the Bearcat
Yes, college cheerleaders are human, too. And they’re young. I wasn’t the only member of the cheer squad dealing with life’s serious challenges. There’s a human story underneath every single uniform. (btw: when’s the last time Hollywood portrayed a black male cheerleader as something other than the butt of a joke, as in human?)
A lot has happened in the 25 years since that 1984 Rose Bowl. MVP Rick Neuheisel is now UCLA’s head coach, and I’ve survived 24 years (and counting) since acquiring HIV/AIDS a month after graduating UCLA in 1985.
My cheerleader “daze” inspired my fourth novel, Walt Loves the Bearcat, the story of a lifelong romance between a college cheerleader and quarterback who goes on to become the first out superstar athlete (no relation whatsoever to the aforementioned QB turned coach).
It is my great hope that Walt Loves the Bearcat serves as inspiration to all athletes who are lovers of men, as well as those with whom they share the locker room.
Anything is possible. I’m still dreaming of the day when pro footballers are out and proud, and Walt Loves the Bearcat is a classic book, movie and story for generations upon generations. Either way, I still have my bowl game memories.