A feast of feats, and no twinkle toes in sight

I went to a national cheerleading competition and took home three valuable lessons.

Pompoms are an endangered accessory. Human pyramids are about as common today as leather football helmets. And, most important, men are full of surprises at these things. Starting with their presence.

One of my oldest and closest friends, Michelle, invited me to the event. She traveled from Utah with her two kids, Xavier, 14, and Gabby, 10. If someone would've told me when we were young that she'd one day have cheerleaders for children, I'd have asked for an apology.

Growing up, Michelle and I had a friendship that extended beyond our school's hallways and further than our clique's slumber parties. We were teammates.

Fast-pitch softball isn't a game for girls not willing to get dirty. And that goes for more than just uniforms. It was, and remains, the kind of sport fathers could get behind with genuine enthusiasm. That certainly explains why Michelle's dad, Merrill, coached our team for several years.

Cheerleading, on the other hand, can strike folks as nothing more than hair bows and twinkle toes. The kind of "activity" a father will warm the bleachers for, so long as the sports section can come with him.

Similar to their stunts, these cheerleaders turned that preconceived notion upside down.

When I arrived at the MGM Convention Center where the event was held, I expected to see Michelle and her kids. Her stepmom, Marilyn, was a pleasant surprise. Her husband and father, a shock - albeit a welcome one.

As it turns out, Michelle's husband, Matt, attends every practice, not simply as a spectator but a student. The former football and baseball coach now wants to try his hand at coaching cheerleaders.

I know it's hard for men to bid farewell to the clipboard and whistle, but hearing that news somehow made me proud of the one-time jock.

Speaking of coaches, the man who gave me the "hit away" signal all those softball years got a case of the fidgets the minute he found his seat that afternoon. Merrill was anxious, and it had nothing to do with the blasting blend of house and hip-hop music. He wasn't close enough to the stage.

Xavier and Gabby's grandfather wanted to get a good look at their performance, but he wanted to scope their competition, too.

That word "competition" is key. There was plenty filling the convention center halls, and it was stiffer than the cheerleaders' hairsprayed ponytails.

The team we came to watch, Mac's Jr. Starz, practices three days a week, 2½ hours a day. The competitive nature of it all, and what was to come, started crystallizing the avid interest level among the men in attendance.

When Xavier and Gabby hit the stage, all of us gathered in the "kneeling-only" area directly in front of it. It's designated for friends and family of the performing team. Cheerleaders watching cheerleaders.

As soon as the music got going, Gabby was front and center tumbling like laundry. Her teammates and she did a lot of clapping, winking, amazing. With girls holding her like pillars, she shot to the ceiling and pulled new poses, nothing but little hands providing a safety net.

Next came Xavier, one of two boys on the team. He flipped, twisted, dove and flew, grabbing the kind of air that usually ends with a slam dunk.

When athleticism of this caliber excels, it's the most visually fulfilling to witness. When it fails, it's the most upsetting.

No one has to tell Xavier that. His pant leg gathered under his shoe in his last tumbling pass, causing a slippery fall. His tears were contagious.

When they left the stage, I followed Michelle in a slow walk back to her kids. We found their team circled around a petite woman who told them she didn't want to see any more crying. They had a clean slate tomorrow and regret wouldn't do them any favors. It was a long shot, but they were still in the game.

I left that place understanding perfectly the appeal of competitive cheerleading to grown men. It's got all the components of their favorite sporting events. Fierce competition, eye-popping athleticism and Hail Mary comebacks.

The Jr. Starz took third place, but turned in a perfect performance on Day Two. I wasn't able to see it in person, but the video Xavier posted to Facebook felt like I did.

One thing stood out to me when I watched it. After Xavier's final, flawless tumbling pass, a man kneeling in front of the stage jumped to his feet and fired his fist in the air out of excitement. It wasn't my former coach or the aspiring one, either. Just another dad caught up in the moment.

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.