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Steelerettes -- National Football League's first official cheerleaders

| Monday, Dec. 6, 2004

They took to the field decked out in black and gold. These young and talented performers brought their best to the football gridiron.

With pompoms in hand and the Steelers fight song coming from their lips, the Steelerettes proved that the men of the Pittsburgh Steelers were not the only ones who could grace Forbes Field and later Pitt Stadium from 1961 through 1969.

As the National Football League's first official cheerleaders, they arrived the same year John F. Kennedy became president and went away the year a man walked on the moon. In many ways, their existence was also symbolic of the type of changes that would characterize that turbulent era.

But most of all, the cheerleaders, who were all Robert Morris Junior College (now Robert Morris University) students, represented the Steelers and the southwestern Pennsylvania hometowns from which most came. In all, nearly 60 women were Steelerettes.

In the beginning, William V. Day helped connect the school and the football organization. He was the vice president of Robert Morris Junior College, and the Steelers' entertainment coordinator.

"It really began back when the Steelers did not draw well at Forbes Field and only drew well for a few games at Pitt Stadium," said Day, now president of St. Barnabus Health System in Richland. "As I saw it, Robert Morris was an institution without a football team and the Steelers was a team without cheerleaders."

Tryouts for the first Steelerettes took place in the spring of 1961. Cheerleaders were chosen on appearance, coordination, gymnastic ability and personality. They also had to maintain a 2.0 grade point average.

Eleanor Lineman Lewis, 62, an inspirational speaker who now lives in Atlanta, Ga., grew up in Oil City and was a member of the first Steelerettes squad. As team captain, she remembers the care that went into cultivating the squad's image.

"The first year, we wore hard helmets as part of our uniform," she said. "We started to look more and more like wholesome cheerleaders as time went on."

Other than the hard hats, a reference to the city's steel industry, being dropped by 1963, the uniforms changed little. The skirts did not come much shorter than knee-length and black turtlenecks and white sneakers were always a part of the outfits.

Patricia Tanner, who was a Steelerette from 1965 to 1968 said the Rooneys were not fond of the idea of cheerleaders wearing revealing costumes and performing sexy dances. Tanner is now the managing director of Calliope: The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society, a local arts organization.

"It was a mutual understanding between us and management that we did not sign on to become showgirls," she said. "It was definitely not like what would come with squads like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders."

Even though the team posted losing seasons most of the 1960s, the Steelerettes tried to keep up morale.

Lynn Moran, 58, remembers the some of those cold, blustery game days when the team was down and out.

"It was hard to get people and fans to participate," she said. "But, we did it."

It may have been difficult to get a "rah-rah" from the crowd, but not so the attention of some smitten males.

Steelers owner Art Rooney, a devout Catholic, demanded cheerleaders remain ladylike on and off the field. Fraternizing with the players was forbidden.

"Young men would see our photos in the newspapers and then write us these letters," Lewis laughed. "Some were even in the armed forces and would write things like, 'I am on a ship in the Pacific and saw your picture.'"

Barbara Smith Recker, 60, of Westport, Conn., said suitors liked the perks that came with dating a cheerleader.

"At the time I was dating my husband-to-be and I had tickets on the 50-yard line," said the Monroeville native. "That went over well."

The Steelerettes were not all about cartwheels, kicks and their trademark human pyramid.

They performed choreographed dance routines to live music provided by jazz musician Harold Betters and bandleader Benny Benack.

Diane Zinkham, of Indiana, Pa., cheered from 1964 to 1966 and coached the Steelerettes in 1967. She grew up in McKees Rocks and was a cheerleader at Sto-Rox High School.

"I loved dancing and each girl had their specialty," she said. "Some were really good at gymnastics."

Big changes came in 1970. The Steelers got a new home in Three Rivers Stadium, ushering in a new era of football that left the Steelerettes behind.

"We had a sense that things were changing," Day said. "We were thinking a new image and new attitude for the organization and we wanted the focus to be on the team."

The Steelerettes were honored last month at the opening of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. The museum is part of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District.

Currently a jacket, uniform, tam and megaphone are on exhibit.

"We will add more images and uniforms, rotating them every now and then," said Anne Madarasz, chief curator of the History Center.

Bonnie Galla, who was a Steelerette from 1966 to 1968 and a Steelers season-ticket holder since 1970, donated some of her items to the sports museum, including the megaphone and tam on display.

"The museum was not even aware of us, not until a news article a couple years ago," she said.

Some say they are delighted to finally get the recognition they deserve.

"We were in the beginning of the wave," said Valerie Miller, 60, of Plum. She was in the Steelerettes in 1964 and 1965.

"It is like we are a league of our own. There are only 60 to 70 women who can claim to have been official Steelers cheerleaders," Zinkham said. "That is quite a legacy."

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