Getting to know the women behind the star

Growing up in Texas, Sundays meant going to church, then later worshipping our Dallas Cowboys. I used to joke with our pastor that when “Take Time to Be Holy” was the closing hymn, he’d sometimes cut it to the first and fourth verses “because the Cowboys are kicking off at noon.”

My brother and I had a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders was a poster in our shared room. We were middle schoolers and the noticing of the opposite sex had begun.

Fast forward to 1998 when my brother and I, now in our late 30s, scored tickets to a Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium. My wife laughed when we got the film back from the game — my roll of 24 exposures of film (remember that?), there were about three pictures from the stands of legends Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin as they rolled over the Cincinnati Bengals. The rest were zeroed in on the cheerleaders.

I didn’t expect to be so enamored with a documentary about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. But I read Matt Ward’s interview with the director of “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” in last week’s newspaper and made it a “must see” for the Hill Country Film Festival.

Our friend, Cindy Bennett, was interviewed extensively in the film from her White Oak ranch. She talked of the pride of being in that special organization, along with the struggles. It was, for sure, a sisterhood for the women who took part.

And the film shows how these young women were there to look good and create some “bling” for Tex Schramm’s Cowboys sidelines. And he wanted all kinds of faces. Back then, black, white and brown went to different schools, went to different churches, but all of them went to (or watched) the Cowboys.

But these women cultivated this image of sexy shaking as the nation came to grips with women’s rights, feminism, Roe v. Wade and other big changes. Some feminists criticized these cheerleaders, but all of them were fiercely proud of what they did. The film explored the dichotomy of women wanting to be able to pursue their own careers, but the kickback they received if being a cheerleader was the career they wanted.

Yet these women were dedicated. They received a paltry amount of pay. One woman said it was $14.25 per game after taxes. And that included four-hour rehearsal sessions several times per week. Yet these same women, on weeks when the ’Boys played out of town or during the off season, attended charity events, visited hospitals, did USO tours for troops and more. They were a lot more than just bouncy bimbos some portrayed them to be.

They also had to put up with a lot of unwanted attention as their fame grew, far more dangerous than the kind from middle-school boys. 

The “star” of the film is Suzanne Mitchell, the late Fredericksburg resident who molded the cheerleaders into the stars they became.

She was strict — her list of rules was harsher than most fathers impose on their high school daughters. “No gum, buy your own boots, no weight gain, no dating players.” Like a lot of coaches in those days, she worked out the women in hot conditions and gave them no water.

But she knew what she wanted and she knew how to shape these women from diverse backgrounds into a cohesive unit that provided another element of entertainment to pro football games. The women interviewed respected her immensely.

She was also fiercely protective. She told “Love Boat” producers they would not film these high-kicking ladies from a low camera angle and kicked one camera into a swimming pool when they tried to ignore her. One of the women’s abusive husband was “dealt with.” She had a run-in with mafia figures and stood her ground. She was tough and unapologetic.

Mitchell died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. As all the teams have cheer squads now, she was a trendsetter as well as a task master. She worked out of the limelight at Bethany Lutheran Church for the final years. Pastor Casey Zesch still seems to have a deep admiration for this strong woman.

This film will make you a fan of these strong, independent women, even if you weren’t as a middle school lad. This documentary brings these women to life far more than a two-dimensional poster ever could.

Fredericksburg Standard

P.O. Box 1639
Fredericksburg, TX 78624-4228