Roughly 350 candidates tried out for a squad that eventually numbered 28 women in 2006
Twenty-eight women. Twenty-eight stories.
One team sat together Monday night in the aft room of Cherry's, a popular sports bar and grill in South Tampa. For an hour, they rose and fell together, laughing as one on many occasions, gasping occasionally, cringing now and then, reliving emotional moments, teasing and congratulating each other.
It was a shared experience, this group viewing of "Making of the Squad" by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, and a triumphant one. The airing of the first of three shows on the NFL Network dedicated to the formation of the 2006 Bucs Cheerleaders squad was a wonderful team-building exercise, at least in this one little corner in South Tampa.
For the majority of the nationwide audience, however, the show works because it is a poignant collection of individual stories.
Tiffany Jimenez set aside woodshop to jump straight from high school to the pros. Lauren Rudolph balanced motherhood and an NFL dream at age 21. Veronica Serna followed a dream from Texas and grasped it by the (long)horns. Tomoko Kojima won another year of U.S. citizenship along with her spot on the squad. Rachel Watson survived a hair-color change that wasn't necessarily embraced by the squad coordinator.
Okay, so not every story was life-and-death, but they were all woven together to form an intriguing and entertaining story for one hour on Monday night. "Making the Squad" starring the 2006 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders debuted on the NFL Network on Monday, and it was everything the franchise, the squad and its fans could had hoped it would be.
Most importantly, it was an opportunity for a nationwide audience to see what goes into making this very elite squad.
"It's great energy," said Milly Figueroa, a 26-year-old rookie on the crew. "You think that it's only you watching it, but you've got to think about it. It's on a grand scale and there are millions and millions of people tuning in tonight, and that's very exciting."
The NFL Network first aired a "Making the Squad" series in 2005, focusing on the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders. It was a huge success, one of the highest-rated series for the fledgling network, and an easy decision to continue in 2006. This time, the Buccaneers were chosen, along with the San Diego Chargers, an indication of how highly Tampa Bay's squad is rated in NFL circles.
Monday night marked the first of three episodes, and it covered most of the audition process, from the beginning to just before the final 51 candidates were reduced to the 28-woman team. The next two episodes, which will cover the remainders of the tryouts as well as the calendar photo shoot in Key West and other events, will air the next two Mondays, June 13 and 20, at 8:00 p.m. ET.
The 2006 cheerleaders saw a little teaser of the show during their calendar shoot last month. However, the debut episode in its entirety was a revelations for the new team.
"They showed us the opening when we were in the keys, but I haven't seen the show," said second-year veteran DeShay Eurice, just as the show's opening scenes were showing on the nine screens surrounding the party at Cherry's. "We're all here together and we all brought people, so I'm excited to see it, obviously. I can't wait."
The crowd, composed of cheerleaders, guests and Buccaneer employees, hushed immediately when the show began, but the cheerleaders showered each other with cat-calls when scenes from the calendar shoot spiced up the intro. The opening scenes were undeniably sexy, and the assembled cheerleaders were obviously proud of what they had accomplished.
"It was very exciting," said Buccaneers Cheerleading Coordinator Sandy Charboneau. "The whole process was exciting, and to see the final product was great."
The stylized intro gave way to the sometimes harsh reality of the tryouts, which pared over 350 candidates down to less than a 10th of that field for the final squad. At times, the harsh realities of the competition were clear, and those in charge of choosing the team were quoted rather directly. That was no surprise to the women in attendance, however, many of whom had been through the process more than once.
"I think watching it with everybody makes me realize, 'Oh, gosh,'" admitted Charboneau, who was filmed making some necessarily straightforward comments. "It is the process, it is reality, it is a hard audition process, with 300-something women who want to be on the team. Watching it now, it makes it hard. But that's part of the process. This is the NFL and it's an elite team. Being part of the Buccaneers Cheerleaders is a big responsibility and I want the best candidates to represent our organization."
Some of those candidates had very interesting back-stories, and the NFL Network crew did a wonderful job of capturing them. Serna was shown early admitting that she was banking on making the team to spur a cross-country move (she made it, and she moved). Rudolph and her daughter were filmed extensively at the end, as the crew followed the two home. And Kojima's odyssey to become a Buccaneers Cheerleader was taken back to 2002, during her first unsuccessful attempt.
The former NFL Japan cheerleader made it in 2003, however, and has duplicated her success each of the last three springs. For her, "Making the Squad" is much more than weekend pursuit.
"Every year, I have to get my visa renewed," Kojima explained. "After I make it, I get my visa renewed. I'm just so nervous and it's just such a big, big moment for me, because I would have to change countries, where I live [if I don't make it]. I cannot plan my future. If I make the squad, I can stay here and work. But if I don't make the squad, I have to go home in Japan, find a job and start a new life from the beginning."
Kojima's teammates cheered heartily when her scenes from 2003 were shown, though it was hard not to share her tears when she got the difficult phone call in 2002. The "Making the Squad" debut brought it all back for the shyly sweet 27-year-old.
"It feels like a long time ago, and now it's fresh memories," said Kojima. "It just reminds me not to forget my heart, why I want to be a cheerleader, and how hard we work to get through."
Jimenez is just learning such lessons. Just 18 and the youngest woman on the squad, she wasn't even graduated from high school when the show was shot. In fact, the NFL Network crew followed Jimenez to school and got some priceless footage of the senior working a heavy saw in woodshop.
Jimenez didn't realize how extensively her story would be woven into the hour-long show until Monday night.
"Seeing myself on TV was shocking," she said. "It was a good experience and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was good that everyone could see behind the scenes and how our lives really our. It's not all glamorous and we don't perform all the time. We do have other lives…like woodshop!"
Jimenez' story may be inspirational to other young women around the nation who have similar dreams. Perhaps Rudolph's experience will speak to other young mothers still harboring professional dreams. Kojima's path could give hope to others coping in a strange land.
Twenty-eight women. Twenty-eight stories. All captured by the NFL Network. Don't miss "Making the Squad" starring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders.