At birth, as Auburn and Alabama football loyalists like to say, you have to make a choice.
You’ve either got to pledge your support to the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers. It’s a tradition that has been passed through generations for as long as the two teams have met on the football field.
That support comes in many forms, but two Shoals residents will be displaying their allegiance literally from the middle of the rivalry Saturday.
Ashley Hogan is a Crimson Tide cheerleader and Darby Harris is an Auburn Tiger Paw. They and their team members will be charged with keeping spirits high among their fans.
It’s a role they cherish and take seriously, and one some would say is destiny.
Darby Harris, a 2011 Florence High School alumna, is following in her father’s footsteps at Auburn University.
Bob Harris played football for the Tigers from 1978-82. One career highlight was his interception of two passes from Walter Lewis during the 1982 Iron Bowl. The second interception helped seal the Tigers’ victory, giving Auburn its first win against the Tide in 10 years. That same year he was chosen All-American and All-Southeastern Conference. He went on to play for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs, playing against such greats as Joe Montana and Walter Payton.
Now, Darby is on the sidelines on game days at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the site of Tuesday’s game.
“It was just a dream come true to be on the same sidelines that my dad once was,” she said. “I’ve grown up loving Auburn, so it’s an honor to represent them and the traditions they stand for.”
Darby is one of 16 women selected to be a Tiger Paw, which differs from the cheerleading squad in that each member is technically trained as a dancer. The Tiger Paws lead the pre-game Tiger Walk and Spirit March. They also are responsible for assisting the basketball cheerleading squad in their cheers, and performing a dance routine at halftime.
Harris had college football exposure before most children ever see a football field. She was 3 months old the first time she visited the Auburn campus and she attended her first game at age 1.
Throughout her childhood, her father took her to the field and into the locker room before and after the games. She said she would see the All-American photo of her dad in his football uniform and think of him as Superman.
Now, it’s her parents’ turn to watch her on the sidelines.
“I’m very proud of her,” Bob Harris said. “I tried to raise her as an Auburn fan the best I could. Auburn was always a very special place for me. I wanted to share that with her, and show her how special it really was.”
Darby said, as a child, she was mesmerized by the cheering crowds at Jordan-Hare Stadium and couldn’t stop watching the Tiger Paws dance and cheer. It was been her lifelong dream to someday be a part of that group, she said.
Her mother, Emily Harris, was a University of North Alabama Lionette and cheerleader. She said the best family memories have been when they attended Auburn games.
“It’s very special,” Emily said. “It’s something that she has dreamed about doing since she was little.”
Darby was dancing by age 3, and often dressed up as a cheerleader, her mother said. She cheered in high school, serving as captain her senior year.
Darby juggles her studies as a pre-nursing major with her Tiger Paw duties. She is required to practice every day and throughout the summer. As a Tiger Paw, she must maintain a 2.75 grade point average.
Darby said she has had to learn to prioritize and sacrifice time with friends, but said it is well worth the effort to be on the sidelines on game day.
Ashley Hogan, a 2008 Rogers High School graduate, is in her fourth year cheering for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
It’s something she has wanted since childhood.
Her dad, Steve Hogan, said Ashley spent countless hours attending practices, clinics and competitions, as well as taking gymnastics. She even missed her senior prom to attend cheerleading tryouts at the university.
Now, he not only watches the players on the field, but watches his daughter lead Tide fans as a cheerleader.
“It’s so much joy and happiness to see the smile on her face doing what she has wanted to do all her life and just to see (the) fun and excitement — she enjoys doing that,” he said.
Ashley had to compete against 70 to 90 men and women every year to remain in the co-ed group. Only about 19 make the cut.
During her tenure at Alabama, she has moved up from the all-female to the co-ed squad. The co-eds cheer at all home and away games, as well as men’s basketball games.
The squad practices three days a week, with workouts starting at 5:30 a.m. twice a week, and there’s a football game on Saturday. They get Friday off, if there’s no basketball game scheduled.
Ashley’s squad practiced during the Thanksgiving break to prepare for the Iron Bowl. They also must work during Christmas break to prepare for the Universal Cheerleader Association College Nationals in early January.
Ashley already as a national championship ring from the event. Her squad won earlier this year. Although the Crimson Tide always ranks near the top in the competition, it was the first time the team had won since the 1970s.
Ashley cheered for the Tide during the 2009 championship game in Pasedena, Calif.
She said she was awe struck by the enormous crowd and the cameras flashing throughout the Rose Bowl stadium, not to mention the military flyover. She said was amazed that so many Alabama fans traveled across the country to watch the game.
“I was really just in shock,” she said.
Ashley is majoring in public relations, and is about to begin an internship with the university’s media relations office in the spring.
Her mother, Teresa Hogan, said she is amazed to see the once 4-year-old gymnast flip across the football field in front of 100,000 people.
Ashley said the sacrifice is all worth it. She has been to almost every stadium in the Southeastern Conference, but there is nothing more fulfilling than cheering for the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium, she said.
Every year, her coaches vote her best all-around cheerleader. This honor is given to a member of the squad who excels in all cheerleading requirements, including tumbling, stunts, baskets, personality and working with other squad members.
She was also awarded the Meg Ingram Scholarship worth $1,500 by her coaches this year. The recipient must be a member of the squad who displays good character.