There is often a stereotype attached to male cheerleaders, but Lawrence Zinn, a former cheerleader for the University of Mississippi, and former football player for New Albany High School, is an athlete in both regards.
Zinn began playing on his first official pee-wee football team in fourth grade. The sports arena was a typical path to follow.
“It was a family thing, ya know,” he said. “My older brother, Jonathan, played, and I always looked up to him. He played at New Albany too, then Northwest Community College.”
Lawrence decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and play football all four years of high school. After a high school run as quarterback, an injury occurred that would change the direction of his life.
While scrambling, Zinn took a slim opportunity to run the ball into the in zone, but was forced to cut and turn backwards. As his body shifted in one direction, his cleat got stuck in the grass and forced his knee and lower body to stay facing forward.
Zinn says: “It’s like I was running, and my body just got stuck, but the rest of it kept going. My foot dug into the ground, but my knee, and the rest of my body, turned the opposite way, and I knew that was it.”
After a series of surgeries and physical therapy, it became clear that Lawrence would not have enough recovery time and strength to return to the sport he loved. He took time to heal his injury, but knew it was time to focus his attention in other places.
Zinn saw his older brother face obstacles in the same sport. After completing his second year of football at Northwest Community college, his brother was told he was too small to continue his dreams at the University of Mississippi.
He knew he had the power and body stability to hold weight, and his muscle mass far exceeded that of the typical male. After learning that he was strong enough to toss girls and hold multiple body weights, Jonathan Baldon’s career in cheerleading began.
Baldon, Zinn’s older brother, recounts proud memories of introducing his brother to the cheer world. He said he felt comfortable in cheer very early.
“It isn’t uncommon to see big athletes, especially former football players in the sport of cheer,” he said. “It takes strength and so much commitment. Your fears don’t matter. It made me proud to see Lawrence following in my footsteps and becoming just as passionate as I was about the sport as a whole.”
According to Zinn, his brother’s perception of the sport is what had a bearing on his own.
“He always told me it was a lot harder than football,” Zinn said. “I believed him, but I always had my own opinion about cheerleaders – (that they were not really athletes) – but my brother opened my eyes. He was my driving force.”
Baldon taught Lawrence all of the basics for leading the crowd with greatness. He did not have to try out because he was recovering from a second meniscus surgery, a result of his football injury, so he used his time to observe and pick up fundamental skills.
He says tumbling came easiest. He learned the basics from his brother when he was in high school, in case football did not work out, but stunting presented more of a challenge that was all about technique.
Zinn said he learned day-by-day that cheerleading is just as much of a sport, if not more, than football, and his initial perception was wrong.
The reason why? There are no breaks.
“In football, someone can substitute you,” Zinn said. “You can even go to a game and not play at all. But in cheer, it’s everyone on that mat for themselves. Don’t throw your tumbling? You get run over. Don’t muster up enough strength to hold your stunt? Watch everyone fall like dominoes. Don’t recover from a fall fast enough? The entire performance stops. What then? No second string in this game.”
Zinn admits that he has gained more respect for these athletes than he imagined. The more he practiced, the more he began to realize that he was falling in love with a sport that took diligence, resilience, dedication, and hours spent perfecting skills to create the perfect crowd-pleasing, jaw-dropping, and attention-grabbing show.
The first game is when the football player turned cheerleader accepted that his ‘ball-playing days’ could never compare to the rush he would feel from hyping up the crowd. Advice from his brother took him a long way.
Zinn said: “He called me told me that it would be something I would never forget. His exact instructions were ‘Don’t fall.’ He told me to man up, do not let my nerves get to me, hit every stunt, don’t bust tumbling, and don’t drop my top girl, because everyone will see.”
Baldon agreed: “I called to let him know it was ‘go-time.’ When I finally got to the sidelines, I looked up to the crowd, and sure enough, I felt that rush. From that point on, I felt like I belonged in front of a crowd.”
This was a different type of resilience and determination than football, according to Lawrence. Comfort zones fall instantly when, no matter what the score looks like or how beautiful or terrible the weather may be, a smile is plastered, girls are tossed to dangerous heights, cheerleaders are throwing their bodies into positions that could be fatal if one wrong move is made, and the crowd is the biggest critic.
Zinn now works as a cheerleading coach at Pride Cheerleading Gym in Pontotoc. He agrees that his life would not be the same without cheerleading.
“You see the same people every day, and you form bonds with so many people in your gym, on your squad, and in your range of competition,” Zinn said.
According to Zinn, “Football is more of a brotherhood, but cheer is a family. There are girls and boys, and you definitely feed off of each other’s energy.
“My life wouldn’t be the same. I can walk into this gym having the most terrible day, and each one of these little girls’ that I coach has a smile that can brighten any day. I would do anything for them.
“I admit, I once looked down upon the sport, but cheerleading has changed everything for me,” Zinn said.
He plans to continue coaching.