I’m not a football fanatic. But here’s a fun sentence to write:
Some of my best friends were Kansas City Chiefs cheerleaders.
I lived in KC for over a decade. So when the Chiefs march through Kansas City today to celebrate their Super Bowl win, I’ll be happy for the city and the team. But it’s a big win for the cheerleaders, too, who often don’t get the love or recognition they deserve.
Mallorie Denmon, a lifelong Kansas Citian and seven-season cheerleader, was on the Super Bowl field in Miami on Sunday as a cheer alumna, assisting the squad, helping cue the calls.
“Gratitude is what I feel,” Denmon, 37, told me. “I know the evolution this team has made since I cheered and the changes that were made while still being that heartfelt Midwest team and I’m grateful.”
People will praise star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 24-year-old who rallied the Chiefs to victory when doubts started to creep in. He dispels the racist black quarterback stigma. And he truly is the MVP.
But the win isn’t solely on the strength of Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Andy “Big Red” Reid, and Damien Williams. It’s not just the athletes and coaches that make it happen.
It’s the cheerleaders, too. Particularly the ones who cheered during the losing seasons and hard years, the ones who keep spirits high when the scores are low. It’s the cheerleader alumni, who despite having retired their white boots, still show up to assist cheer practice and make sure the spirit is strong and the routines are on point on game day.
Krystal Cunningham cheered for the Chiefs for 10 seasons — one of the longest cheer runs in the team’s history. And though she retired in 2016, she’s alumni staff, still giving her all to Chiefs Kingdom.
“I’m still in a state of shock by this win,” said Cunningham, 36. “I think about all of the cheerleaders who cheered losing seasons, their work, sweat, and tears uplifting fans. And, finally, we did it. And the world sees how great we truly are. Year after year we are overlooked and counted out not just as a team but as a city. Now America and the world see how great this community is.”
Cheering isn’t easy work. They aren’t the stereotypes Hollywood will have you believe. These women are environmental scientists and business owners and engineers. Their work ethic is Herculean. They showed up to practice and never missed a game while managing careers and families and school.
All in the name of the Kansas City Chiefs and their love of the city, they kept their pom-poms sky high. They went overseas and supported the troops. They mentored young girls. They held charity events.
Catherine Friends said it’s worth it. She grew up seeing pictures of her mom in a Chiefs cheer uniform. Her mother cheered on the heels of Kansas City’s last Super Bowl win. But Friends spent her childhood in track and field and dance. It wasn’t until after college that the cardiac nurse and dance teacher auditioned for the squad. It was the Chiefs sisterhood and team spirit that drew her in.
“There’s something to be said to be in an environment that promotes positivity by cheering on and uplifting those when they’re up or down. That to me, is essential to being a professional NFL cheerleader," said Friends, 41, who cheered for six seasons and retired in 2011.
“If only we could pocket up the kindness and have more days of inspiration and positivity that our team has brought out in so many through this incredible season. Hold onto this feeling and treat all humans with respect.”
For Cunningham, cheering gave her a home in Kansas City. The Texan went to college in Virginia and moved across the country to Missouri for her engineering career. She’d been a dancer all her life, so her sorority sister encouraged her to audition for the Chiefs cheerleaders.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I wasn’t always comfortable with who I was. Being exposed to different personalities and positive influences through cheer, being able to inspire young girls, especially young girls of color, it mean so much. I learned to accept myself and my cocoa complexion because another cheerleader loved hers. This was a safe place to be myself.”
For Denmon, manager of premium sales at Sprint Center and a dance teacher, Kansas City was always home. Dance is in her DNA, but cheering for the Chiefs allowed her to soar.
“I’ve seen parts of the world people dream of seeing and had opportunities people dream of having,” she said. “It’s taught me to be humble and I’ve learned working hard allows you to live out your wildest dreams. I wish people knew it truly is a labor of love for our city. We are not just a flyover state.”
Cunningham added on to the sentiment. Chiefs Kingdom isn’t just about football, she declared. It’s about community.
“We know we aren’t curing cancer," she said. "But it’s our responsibility to make sure the community stays a community, even when it feels like the end of the road, there is positive that comes out of the darkness. There is always a fighting chance.”
And it’s that kind of spirit we could all stand to cheer on.