A football flies through the air, hurtled from the hand of quarterback Blake Bortles. ‘Jaguars on three’ comes the shout from the huddle as the offense and defence prepare to scrimmage at the Allianz Park.
It’s bitingly cold throughout practice. Frosted breath escapes into the atmosphere. The players don team-branded hoodies under their practice jerseys and are eager to get back on the bus and rest before Sunday’s meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Tucked away indoors for the time being — out of sight but working just as hard — are the Jacksonville Roar, the team’s cheerleaders.
They briefly emerge to greet the fans, many of whom clamour to the barrier between field and stand to get pictures with them, just as excitedly as they would be if it were one of the players. After a brief routine, they disappear inside again. It’s too cold.
The reason for this isn’t just respite, however. They too are practising for Sunday, making the long and tiresome trip to London with the team despite the prospect of returning to their regular work upon arrival back in the United States.
For them, cheerleading isn’t full-time. It’s a story that’s gained notoriety in the States, but cheerleaders are not well-paid — earning anywhere from $75 to $150 per game — meaning they must balance the demands of both work and cheer to earn a living.
“It’s a great experience. I love cheering on the team. But it requires a lot of time management,” Sarah, a physical therapist, squad member of five years and cheer captain, said. “We love dancing and performing so it’s a fun experience to be able to do both.”
Jada, a fitness instructor and Roar cheerleader of two years, added: “The long days are worth it.”
Working the regular weekly nine-to-five isn’t then succeeded by a relaxing weekend with friends and family. Cheerleaders commit what little free time they have to the Jaguars team, spending eight hours or more on the sidelines at various stadia throughout the country. This is on top of practising throughout the week, too.
“We’ve lit the candle at both ends,” Karen, a clinical dietitian and cheer rookie, explained. “But when you’re dancing it’s not really burning because you get so caught up and excited that it doesn’t really burn you out.”
Clearly, it’s not the money they do it for. In Jada’s case, it was a family tradition passed down from her mother, but all agreed that it was primarily their love of dancing that inspired them to become NFL cheerleaders.
“I grew up dancing, doing ballet, tap and jazz and I danced in high school,” Sarah said. “From there I found my interest in the NFL cheering.”
Karen concurred. “I grew up dancing as well. I danced in college for a couple of years and when I finished my masters I missed it. I felt I needed to do it, so I tried out.”
This is only part of the story. Just as NFL players foster a strong sense of brotherhood and togetherness — despite the backdrop of internal tension plaguing the Jaguars camp, arising from last weekend’s locker room incident wherein Calais Campbell was pictured restraining Yannick Ngakoue — so do the cheerleaders.
“Having the camaraderie, the sisterhood and friendship with other women who appreciate and value this sport as much as you do is great,” Jada said.
Karen added: “You wouldn’t look at us and say we’re the most diverse group, but when you find out about each individual, you realise they have careers that span all over.
“So you meet a lot of people who are really different to you, but all have the same passion. I don’t think you can beat that.” There were enthusiastic nods of agreement all round.
The scope of cheerleading isn’t limited to conducting the fans on game-day, entertaining and creating excitement, and their reach extends beyond the confines of the TIAA Bank Field in Florida.
The Roar regularly make public appearances in schools and charities and they form an important aspect of community life.
“We are also involved in other events in the community,” Jada said. “They really look forward to us being there. It means a lot.”
She continued: “We also serve as an inspiration for young girls that they don’t have to give up dance.”
There’s an ever-growing passion for football in the UK, epitomised by the rafts of fans from across the country that converge on Wembley once a year for the NFL International Series, and the Jaguars are central to that.
This is their sixth consecutive year in London and — in no small part due to franchise owner Shahid Khan’s failed £600 million bid to purchase Wembley Stadium — they’re considered the team most likely to settle here.
Whatever the outcome, it means the Roar cheerleaders have grown familiar with the English capital.
For Jada, it’s one of the perks of the job, as the fan support in Florida isn’t as spectacular as it once was. “I think the best part is when we do appearances here and interact. Because everyone here is so much more excited. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
“I love meeting all the fans here. It’s a great experience. It’s like our second home,” Sarah enthused.
The fact of the matter is that London could become the Jaguars’ permanent home. Ultimately, though, cheer isn’t about where they do it, rather why. And for the cheerleaders of the Jacksonville Roar, it’s a matter of doing something they love with those that share the same passion.
“It’s a great stress reliever to be able to do what’s fun. We love it,” Jada explained. Wholehearted agreement from everyone once again.
Featured photograph/Roger Goodgroves