"I'm on my last concussion," says University of Cincinnati senior Nick Furney, who competes with what can only be described as a dangerous intensity. Furney's last blow to the head was so severe that he was knocked out cold and woke up shaking and vomiting into a trashcan he'd requested while still unconscious. "I have a really bad habit of catching girls with my face."
Furney, like many of the NCAA's most elite and battle-scarred athletes, is a male cheerleader. His specialty is throwing coeds in the air and that turns out to be an extraordinarily demanding endeavor. Consider the physics: It takes roughly 550 pound-feet per square second for two men to launch a 100-pound pom-pom waving woman five feet in the air and even more to catch her (ideally with their arms). Does Furney work out? Constantly. The only athletes on campus carrying that much muscle and that many war wounds are his fellow cheerleaders.
"A lot of older women will come up and feel our chest and our muscles," says University of Michigan senior cheerleader A.J. Rodriguez, who – like most male cheerleaders – tried out for his squad without a clear understanding of the sport's physical demands. Because he has to have both the upper body strength required for throws and the agility necessary for tumbling, Rodriguez, a former football and baseball player, subjects himself to a battery of exercises: squats, bench presses, deadlifts, power cleans, and snatches. Then there is the routine itself, two and a half minutes of "gymnastics, dancing, track, and a power sport – like weightlifting."
After cheering Michigan's basketball team to the Final Four last year, Rodriguez squad went down to Daytona for the National Cheerleading Competition and won, but not before blood was spilled. "Someone gets beat up or injured about every day," says Rodriguez, who had suffered deep cuts to the face courtesy of his teammates' sharp elbows and knees.
University of Florida junior Tony DePiero credits male cheerleaders' persistence to the trust factor. "If you're too tired and you can't hold a stunt or you can't catch a basket" – where two male cheerleaders lock arms and launch girls up to 20-feet high – "that girl will fall and can break her neck and die." Given what their teammates are putting on the line, the men feel obligated to weather bumps without complaint.
In order to stay in shape during the season, DePiero eats one gram of protein per pound of his body weight every day and spends a fair amount of time upside down. Mastering a handstand, he explains, is a great way to shore up your stabilizers. "If you can hold your own body weight up," he says. "You can definitely hold a girl up in the air."
He gets a lot of practice doing just that. DePiero says that the wives of the coaches running Florida's higher profile teams have a strange way of greeting him and teammates.
"Hey!" they yell. "Pick us up!"