The NFL's First Cheerleaders
During the decade of the 1960s, before Myron Cope's Terrible Towel, the Steeler Polka and the now all-to-familiar chant that his been heard around the world, "Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go," Pittsburgh Steeler fans turned to the Steelerettes, their official cheerleading squad, to whip up enthusiasm for our home town team.
Since their humble beginnings in 1933 until the dawn of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL's perennial losers. Ticket sales for their home games at Pitt Stadium and Forbes Field were at a low point and the team was struggling to increase attendance.
The Steelerettes were formed in 1961 by the Steelers Entertainment Coordinator, William V. Day. No other NFL team had cheerleaders, and Day believed that a cheerleading troop performing well-choreographed routines could bring some excitement and enthusiasm to the games, and enliven the Steeler fans.
Day was also a member of the faculty of Robert Morris Junior College. The school had no football program of its own and the student body had adopted the Steelers as their representative team. He thought it fitting that the girls should come from the school that loved their Steelers.
It was agreed that the squad would be made up of Secretarial Science students from the School of Business. The Steelerettes would be adorned in outfits befitting of the steel town image of Pittsburgh. Their uniforms consisted of gold knee-length bibbed jumpers and hardhats.
Tryouts for the Steelerettes began in the spring of 1961. In addition to their athletic ability, the girls were required to take a written exam testing their knowledge of football in general, and the Steelers in particular. The exams weren't always that easy, and were eventually dropped in 1964.
The first group of Steelerettes that cheered during the 1961 season were Virginia Davis, Patricia Zuvella, Margaret Hensler, Eleanor Lineman (Captain), Dolly Merante, Margie McCormick, Sandy McEachran, Linda Walters and Barbara Bishop. These college girls have the unique distinction of being the first-ever squad of NFL cheerleaders!
This ground-breaking concept required careful consideration. Leading cheers for a professional sports team would be much different than the traditional scholastic "Rah Rah" chants. The Steelerettes were defined as entertainers whose job it was to keep the fans enthusiasm high even when the Steelers were losing.
The girls developed energetic, high spirited dance and gymnastic routines that were meticulously practiced and executed to live music on the field. During that initial season, the Steelers went 6-8 overall, but their home record was an above average 4-3, and the Steelerettes proved to be a tremendous success with both the fans and the media.
The 1962 season started off with a frenzy of public appearances. When the squad was selected, Bob Prince interviewed them on his weekly TV show, and they were being mentioned in newspaper articles. Team Captain Eleanor Lineman was featured in a full page newspaper spread demonstrating referee signals. The Pittsburgh Steelerettes had become the darlings of the local sports scene.
The members of the 1962 squad were Bonnie Robinson, Jean Craig, Jaye Ann Harris, Harriet Sago, Eleanor Lineman (Captain), Linda Walters, Judy Byers, Arlene Wooley and Bonnie Laird.
For the Steelerettes second season, some new features were added to their repertoire. Carole Sematic displayed her twirling skills as "The Steeler Strutter," and a group of young men called the Ingots were added to compliment and assist the cheerleaders in their routines. The Ingots were also made up of students from Robert Morris Junior College.
Another new idea was to set up a cannon in the endzone that fired off to punctuate each touchdown and get the crowd charged. When a Steeler crossed the goal line, the Ingots would fire the cannon, the band would play the Steeler Fight Song and the Steelerettes would go into their Victory routine.
It was always an exciting moment, and the crowd loved it. After one particular touchdown the cannon was fired just a little too close to Steeler receiver Buddy Dial as he entered the endzone. After the smoke from the cannon blast engulfed both Dial and his pursuer, the Pro Bowl receiver confessed he was so stunned that he nearly had a heart attack. After that game, the cannon was never seen again.
The Steelers, led by the legendary quarterback Bobby Layne, finished the 1962 season with the best win/loss record in Steelers history. Their 9-5 slate was good enough to secure the team an appearance in the Bert Bell "Playoff Bowl" at the Orange Bowl in Miami. This was a yearly exhibition game in the 1960s featuring the second place teams in each division.
The Steelerettes were once again a big hit with the fans, and were emerging as the Steelers #1 supporters. Unfortunately, they were not taken along on the trip to Miami and the Steelers lost the game, 17-10.
In 1963 the Steelerette uniforms were a bit brighter and the girls no longer had to wear the hard hats. The members of the squad for the third season were Dianne Feazell, Adele Colao, Barb Smith, Kay Vollmer, Eleanor Lineman (Captain), Michele Gardner, Pat Wolff, Elaine Reagan, Maureen Creen, Fran Capolla and Bonnie Hancock.
The squad was increased to ten girls, which made it possible to do a classic pyramid, which from then on became one of the Steelerettes trademark routines. Carefully choreographed acrobatic maneuvers were used to disassemble the pyramid. The girl in the top position did a backflip onto the field, then a series of cartwheels ending in a split to begin the formation. The next two did their backflips and cartwheels ending in a split on each side of the first girl and so on until we ended up forming a "V" on the field. The girls performed this several times during the game and it was a genuine crowd pleaser.
The pyramid was difficult to pull-off, and sometimes the girls collapsed into a pile. The 1963 Steelerettes, as well as the 1969 squad, are immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among the films that are shown in the theater are bloopers. The opening scenes of two such films show the pyramids collapsing in one of the Steelerettes humorous heaps.
Another well-rehearsed routine was the line dance that followed every Steeler score, performed to the rhythm of "The Pittsburgh Steelers Fight Song."
The year 1963 was another fantastic season for the Steelers and the Steelerettes. The football team finished with a 7-4-3 record and the Steelerettes were making regular appearances at charity functions, hospitals and schools. The talented ladies were also regular performers during halftime at the Duquesne University basketball games.
Being a member of the Steelerettes was not all fun and games. It involved hard work and discipline, and evolved into a year-round activity. Practices were held after school nearly every day, and weekend workouts lasted four and five hours. For all of this hard work, their only compensation was a couple of complimentary tickets to each Steeler game. It didn't matter, the Steelerettes were having a great time.
The following year the Steelerettes had their biggest group of applicants at tryouts. While interest in the cheerleaders was peaking, the Steelers themselves struggled to a 5-9 record.
In 1965, the Steelerettes featured Donna Talarico, Mary Ann Wolfe, Cindy Murray, Jan Rudolph, Diane Battiste (Captain), Barb Pawlesh, Patty Tanner, Valerie Mafrice and Marlene Phillips. While the popularity of the Steelerettes continued to flourish, the Steelers fell further into despair, finishing with a 3-11 record.
By 1966, the Steeler cheerleaders had become as much a part of the Steelers wholesome image as the players themselves. They had even gained the acceptance of the Chief, Art Rooney Sr., who never really liked the idea of "girls" on the football field. Through their hard work and dedication, the Steelerettes had earned his respect and trust.
The Steelerettes were now bonafide local celebrities and called upon to perform at many Pittsburgh functions. Sometimes the squad performed as a group and sometimes individual members were selected to represent the team. The girls appeared as a group on a local early morning television show, entertained at a Sears convention and a Home Builders Association function. Some even appeared at a Dr. Pepper convention in Pittsburgh.
The Steelerettes even had a brush with national fame when Columbia Records requested some of the girls to perform during an Andy Williams/Henry Mancini concert at the Civic Arena. They appeared onstage providing the backdrop for "Watching All The Girls Go By," sung by Andy Williams, then got to meet the two stars backstage, where they were given autograped albums as souvenirs.
While the Steelerettes represented the team off the field, the on-the-field Steelers finished the 1966 season with a 5-8-1 record, with three wins and a tie coming at home.
For the 1967 season, the Steelerette roster included Patti Tanner, Jan Smyth, Mary Ann Wolfe (captain), Lynn Gran, Judy Hemma, Bonnie Botti, Maureen Creen, Bonnie Laird and Lynn Lucas. As the Steelerettes remained on top of their game, the Steelers continued their mediocre play, finishing 4-9-1.
The next season the squad featured Linda Markle, Carolyn Peterson, Lindsay Van Wetering, Jeaneen Powers, Kathy Chuba, Sabra Miller, Donna Ungarean, Sue Woessner, Jennie Taylor, Sharon Brombar and Bonnie Roush.
By this time, the idea of having cheerleaders on the sidelines had caught the attention of several other NFL teams, most notably the Dallas Cowboys, and times were changing. The Steelerettes had always projected a wholesome, collegiate type image while the new wave of NFL cheerleaders mimicked the Cowboy cheerleaders and their go-go dancing "Rockettes" style.
The Steelerettes were starting to look a bit outdated. Plans were underway for the construction of Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers first real home, and it was time for the team and the cheerleaders to make a decision on the future. After the dissapointment of the Steelers 1-13 record in 1969, the two decided to move in a different directions.
Robert Morris College now had a football team and the cheerleaders were needed on campus. The school was developing an impressive curriculum and offered many extra-curricular activities. Students seemed to be more interested in school related events and less interested in cheering for a professional team that appeared to be going nowhere. After some deliberation, Mr. Rooney and Robert Morris College came to a mutual decision to disband the squad.
The decision doomed the Steelerettes, relegating the girls to a footnote in Steeler history after nine seasons as their #1 fans. Ironically, these young women who cheered on the Steelers losing teams through so many lean years missed out on the glory days of the 1970's string of Pittsburgh Steeler Super Bowl victories.
Pittsburgh Steelers, cross that goal
* Information retrieved from www.steelerettes.com. *
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