Ex-football player turns to cheerleading

Former Austin High School in Decatur cornerback Christian Morris, bottom, will see football from a different perspective this season as a cheerleader at West Alabama. The prospect of a scholarship is what fueled Morris to try cheerleading, and now he's hooked on the sport.

Samuel L. Jackson did it at Riverside High in Chattanooga, as did Jimmy Stewart at Princeton and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower at West Point.

Now, at the University of West Alabama, Christian Morris is joining the ranks.

The 2011 Austin High School graduate in Decatur and six-year football player set aside his pads and helmet for the one-time male-dominated activity of cheerleading.

What’s fueling him? Money.

“I love football, but I wasn’t going to get a scholarship playing it,” Morris said. “I was going to find any way to pay for school.”

After the 2010 football season, during which the 5-foot-8 inch 170-pound cornerback trolled the field chasing wide receivers and tackling running backs, his search for scholarships began. When Austin High cheerleader Alex Summers prodded Morris to practice with the team, the 18-year-old who did flips on the trampoline - but feared tumbling to the ground - agreed to try it. Just once.

“I guess he liked it because he kept on coming and kept on doing it,” said Summers, a senior.

From the first lift, Morris was hooked.

Nothing, neither his inexperience nor teasing from his teammates, could deter him. Competitive and determined, Morris had the support of his family.

“When I told my dad, all he said was, ‘Go out and get you some money, son,’ ” Morris said.

He attended lessons every week at Southern Spirit, drove three hours to Livingston for open gyms at West Alabama and practiced with Aaron Brumbeloe, a former University of North Alabama cheerleader, and John Stalnaker, a cheerleader at Wallace State Community College and former Hartselle High linebacker.

“I was not expecting to have fun, but I did,” Morris said. “I like it for real now. Cheerleading is more than a sport. It’s so much more difficult than you think. In football you have pads. In cheerleading you are defenseless. You get hit in the face and get a lot of busted noses. I’m at three so far.”

In April, Morris accomplished his goal. With just four months of cheerleading experience, he was one of four guys to make the 22-member squad and earned a $1,000 yearly scholarship.

“(Cheering) is a great way for a guy to earn a college scholarship. Look at Christian Morris,” Austin High coach Shellie Burgreen said.

But just like in football, baseball and basketball, cheerleading scholarships are highly competitive. Burgreen and Decatur High coach Amy Godwin hope the lifting of Decatur’s 20-year ban on stunting - building pyramids, performing lifts and cradle-catching - in 2010 will make their members more attractive to colleges. Under the ban, cheerleaders could only dance and tumble.

“For years our girls were penalized because they couldn’t stunt,” Godwin said. “Asking our cheerleaders to get scholarships while not stunting was like asking a defensive lineman to not tackle and still get a scholarship.”

Although “ground-bound” - curse words in the cheerleading world - Decatur and Austin graduates went on to cheer in college. Many of the higher-level cheerleaders paid for private lessons, Burgreen said.

“We feel that our jobs are to help prepare them for the next step: college cheering. Now, they have the experience from everyday work with us and they really don’t have to pay so much on the side for private lessons,” she said.

Morris will make his cheerleading debut Thursday when West Alabama takes on South Alabama. Along with cheering at football and basketball games, the West Alabama squad will participate in Division II small co-ed competitions.

“The most challenging thing for me has been showing spirit without feeling weird,” Morris said.

“I’m a little nervous about being out there and in front of everyone. In football I made the crowd cheer with a good tackle. Now I have to make them cheer because I’m a cheerleader.

“That is way different.”

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