The Patriots are looking for a few good women.
In January, 327 hopefuls applied to become cheerleaders for the 2012 season. After a workshop and several preliminary auditions, 43 finalists report for boot camp. Only the top 25 make the grade.
On March 20, just moments before the starting time of 6 p.m., a couple of the 43 candidates rush into the Dana-Farber Field House complaining about getting poor directions from Gillette Stadium gatekeepers.
These women don’t know it yet, but they are not going to make the final cut.
“I hate excuses,’’ says cheerleader director Tracy Sormanti softly. “I sent them directions and they didn’t follow them. I know it sounds harsh, but you are trying out for a professional team and I am not a baby sitter.’’
The rookies are wide-eyed with anticipation, the veterans friendly, despite the competition.
“I’m going to surprise them,’’ says Sormanti, as the group warms up on the artificial turf. “They are going to stretch, then run the ramps to the top of Gillette. Ten pushups on each level, then jumping jacks and then run back down. Then we’ll start practice.’’
“She has to have everything. She can’t just be pretty. She can’t just be talented, she can’t just be smart, but she has to be all of the above. ’’Tracy Sormanti, on choosing Patriots cheerleaders
First, Sormanti addresses the troops: “No talking during stretching,’’ she says. “If you have gum, spit it out, it’s a problem.’’
There are rules. Probably hundreds of rules, say Sormanti.
Foremost, there will be no fraternization with players.
“I tell them if you want to meet a Patriots player, don’t be a Patriots cheerleader,’’ Sormanti says. “We do have a non-fraternization policy; there are only two teams in the league that don’t have one. I think fans have this perception that there’s this big frat party going on and there just isn’t.’’
Also, just being beautiful is not enough. Besides the game-day activities, Patriots cheerleaders make roughly 1,000 personal appearances for businesses and charities.
“She has to have everything,’’ Sormanti says. “She can’t just be pretty. She can’t just be talented, she can’t just be smart, but she has to be all of the above. ’’
No tattoos, either.
“Cover them with Band-Aids or makeup,’’ Sormanti says.
No exceptions, even for the cheerleader who has the name of her brother, killed in Iraq, tattooed on her wrist.
The 5-foot-2-inch Sormanti is as tough as Wes Welker cutting across the middle. “She’s just like [Bill] Belichick, only she smiles a lot more,’’ says one veteran, who quickly retracts her statement.
In 1983, Sormanti was a 19-year-old ponytailed Patriots cheerleader, the youngest on the squad. “When dinosaurs roamed the earth,’’ she tells the group, whose average age is 21 years old.
Some of the cheerleaders did the math.
“One of the girls said to me, ‘You’re almost halfway to being 100,’ ’’ says Sormanti. “I said, ‘You’re almost halfway to being cut.’ ’’
But Sormanti never raises her voice and is well respected. She’s also a second-degree black belt. “I don’t yell at anyone. I don’t have to yell at them, I just won’t choose them.’’
The two-week, four-session boot camp entails running the ramps, dance choreography, public speaking training, endurance videos, and nearly 200 of those dreaded, repetitive high-leg kicks.
“It’s way harder this year than I remember,’’ says Athena Lazo, a veteran attending her third boot camp.
Unlike military boot camp, the women try mightily to smile through the pain, at least while a photographer is shooting pictures.
“The sprinting, and the running and the kicks are just killer,’’ says Lazo. “Probably because the [swimsuit] calendar shoot [in Jamaica] is coming up soon. We just over-train for everything.’’
Three and out
Cheerleaders can only do three-year stints before they are automatically retired and given a Patriots diamond ring for their efforts. A nice perk for a minimum-wage, part-time job.
“Why three and out?’’ says Sormanti. “Because there are so many opportunities. Most of the time women start to get stale after the three years. Weekend practices become cumbersome and hundreds of promotional appearances become not as fresh.’’
Retiring cheerleaders have the opportunity to advance to line captains and instructors.
On the field, the women practice several dance routines that have been already posted as video on a website.
“This shows me who has done their homework,’’ Sormanti says.
The hopefuls also toss around an 8-pound medicine ball and work with a Pilates instructor on a balance board.
At the Saturday morning session, Sormanti asks the rookies to come to the front of the group one by one and introduce a peer and reveal something about her.
This is an exercise in teamwork.
“If they were so self-absorbed that they didn’t make any friends, I don’t want them. If they turn every conversation back to themselves, forget it.’’
Sormanti’s penchant for being prepared is downright Belichickian. She has already interviewed each recruit for a half-hour, unheard of in professional cheerleading circles.
“In the first five minutes if they can’t make eye contact, forget it,’’ she says. “Bad posture, slumping, looking past me, forget it. You’re done.’’
The group includes a hockey coach, a woman whose mother was a Patriot cheerleader, and a hopeful who has already been cut three times, but won’t give up.
There’s even a mother on the field.
Kelly Lush, 29, had her second child just seven months ago.
“My arms were quivering,’’ says Lush, after a morning workout. “Eighty pushups is a lot for a girl. I’m not in this for the money. It’s just a high to perform and get the best seat in the house.’’
One candidate takes the Patriot name to heart.
Stacey Pirelli, 29, wants to be a Patriot cheerleader to honor her brother, Rob, a Green Beret killed in Iraq in 2007.
She knows the cheerleaders have visited 25 countries since Sept. 11, including Iraq and Afghanistan. “What the team stands for is amazing,’’ Pirelli says.
Pirelli wants to go to war zones to thank the troops. “I think it would help them to keep them going.’’
Sormanti says visiting the troops is not like going to Disneyland. The cheerleaders stay in tents, sleep on cots, wear body armor, and are sleep-deprived.
“We have been to the remotest regions of northern Afghanistan, where the helicopter will drop us off and we’ve had to walk up the side of a mountain and literally not been allowed to take off our Kevlar vests and helmets,’’ Sormanti says.
“Things I’ve seen, you have no idea. We have been at the site of two mortar attacks, where it literally shook your teeth.’’
Supporting the troops
In July 2009, Sormanti and five Patriot cheerleaders visited Camp Joyce in Afghanistan, just 5 kilometers from the mountainous border of Pakistan.
“When we were taking off a propelled rocket was shot at the base. It missed our helicopter by 100 yards,’’ Sormanti says.
Command Sergeant Major Jimmy Carabello of North Andover wrote letters thanking the Patriots for “the joy and happiness they spread.’’
“My apologies on the mortar attack that was occurring as you departed our camp,’’ Carabello wrote. “You truly were in the face of the enemy today and I hope that all of the ladies are OK. We really appreciated it, more than words can ever express.’’
Sormanti says the cheerleaders returned to Afghanistan in 2010 for Christmas.
“Of course we went back again because anytime they ask, we go because we support our troops. Most importantly, the ladies come back changed, with a new appreciation for our troops and the sacrifices they make for our country.’’
Sormanti focuses her gaze at her troops doing Rockettes kicks in front of her. She says there is no formula for the 2012 squad.
“I don’t want just a bunch of blonde girls,’’ Sormanti says. “I want to make it as diverse and as colorful and beautiful as possible. But you get what you get with whoever walks through the door. You hope it’s a beautiful rainbow.’’
As the women gulp water during a break, Sormanti’s eyes get misty as she describes the final cuts.
“Whoever is not selected in that room is literally going to be devastated,’’ she explains. “The toughest thing is next Saturday. I won’t sleep before. I won’t sleep after.’’