Colts cheerleaders' spirit 'got the stadium rocking'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like many in Baltimore in 1954, Patricia "Pinkie" Brodowski and nine other young women fell head over heels for a new professional football team in town, the Baltimore Colts.

But Brodowski and her friends did so on Sunday afternoons as cheerleaders for the Colts. And by being the first full-time cheerleading squad in the National Football League, they were pioneers in what became a familiar part of American culture and the rhythm of the nation's Sundays.

They would also be a key ingredient of the unique spirit at Memorial Stadium, what one Chicago sportswriter described as the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

Fifty years later, about 30 members of the original Colts cheerleaders, most in their mid- to late 60s, will gather in Bel Air today for a reunion and anniversary celebration. Some will travel from Georgia and Florida to attend.

To former Colts player Gino Marchetti, the cheerleaders were "nice girls, great girls who started the idea of cheerleading in the NFL. They really got the stadium rocking. ... Other stadiums were like morgues compared to ours."

Appreciation abounds. Patrick McCusker, owner of the Canton restaurant Nacho Mama's, is catering the reunion gratis. He remembers the cheerleaders from when, as a boy, he attended Colts games with his father.

And an original Colts cheerleaders' uniform, complete with a cowgirl hat made in a Lexington Street haberdashery, will be placed in the Sports Legends at Camden Yards museum when it opens next year.

"They were pioneers in the NFL," said John Ziemann, president of Baltimore's Marching Ravens band, who started playing in the Colts band in 1962. He met his future wife, Charlene, a cheerleader, at Memorial Stadium, a 33rd Street landmark that has since been demolished.

Loyal fans, loyal friends

According to legend, cheerleading got its start in the 1880s at a Princeton football game, and the cheerleaders were all male. Today, cheerleading from youth sports to high school and college athletics is wildly popular, and sometimes incredibly competitive.

In the NFL, most teams have cheerleading squads.

"There is nothing to dispute the Baltimore Colts cheerleaders' claim they were the first in the NFL," said Saleem Choudhay, a researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Some of the early Colts cheerleaders led cheers in high school. Others felt that stirring enthusiasm among the fans was akin to civic pride.

"It was a fun thing then, but friendships among us have endured through the years," said Brodowski, who joined the first Colts squad after graduating from Patterson Park High School.

"Back then, we bought our own uniforms, megaphones, made our own pom-poms," Brodowski said. "Today's cheerleaders, well, that's a whole new concept, more glamour and entertainment.

"To us, loyalty to the team and city was important."

The team's eventual success led to the creation of more than 30 Colts Corrals, or fan clubs. One of the chapters was at the Maryland Penitentiary.

"The cheerleaders, the players, the band, the crowd - we were all part of a special drama that unfolded in Baltimore at that time," said Raymond Berry of Colorado, who was a sure-handed receiver of Johnny Unitas' passes.

"Everything was new. It was incredibly special," Berry said.

Memories of the sidelines

Andy Nelson, a former teammate of Berry's who owns a barbecue restaurant in Baltimore County, has fond memories of the Colts cheerleaders.

Compared to their modern-day counterparts, "they wore more clothes," Nelson said. "But they were a tactical advantage to us because Memorial Stadium exploded in noise, and the other teams could not hear checkoff counts. Those ladies were out there on the ground with us in rain and cold."

For Eleanor Dudley of Arbutus, joining the cheerleading squad in 1956 was a great opportunity, even though the squad members would not be paid for several years. They eventually received one ticket for home games.

Some of the cheerleaders worked the 1958 championship game, but they paid their own train fare. To help raise money for uniforms and equipment, they participated in volunteer work and fashion shows.

But on Sundays inside Memorial Stadium's concrete walls, it was game day.

"I led cheers on the visitors' side of the stadium, which offered some peeks into pro football. George Halas [former coach of the Chicago Bears] and Vince Lombardi [former coach of the Green Bay Packers] used very colorful language," Dudley said.

'It's a beauty pageant now'

Miriam "Mim-Mi" Cholewczynski, one of the original 10 cheerleaders, recalled that her sideline job 50 years ago was extremely different from today's NFL cheerleaders.

"It's a beauty pageant now," she said. "We were there for enthusiasm, understood the game."

Other generations of cheerleaders worked Colts games until 1984, when the team moved to Indianapolis. The Colts band continued to perform in other NFL cities, and some cheerleaders accompanied the band and performed at halftime shows.

The last Colts cheerleaders squad disbanded in 1987. When the Ravens came to Baltimore in 1996, the team adopted the Colts band for two years then, in 1998, the franchise created a new band and cheerleading squad.

Modern standards

Those seeking to earn a spot today on the Ravens cheerleading team must pass a rigorous two-day try-out that includes physical tests and an interview. The uniforms are more revealing, too.

"It's definitely different," said Tina Simijoski, director of the 58-member team.

"First, we are co-ed. And the routines today are a little more complex, with acrobatics and gymnastics. And it might help to be a very good dancer," she said.

Simijoski said the team pays for the cheerleaders' uniforms, warm-up suits, a two-day training camp and game-day luggage. Included in the ranks of the Ravens cheerleaders are teachers, soldiers, engineering students and a company president.

Still, being an original was special to Barbara Kroeger, an Arbutus resident who led cheers from 1955 to 1959.

"It was such a different world from today," she said. "We froze to death, even though we were double-layered, wore gloves.

"We were picked because we enjoyed it, not because we were sexy or beautiful," Kroeger said.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
55°