Plum track star finds career on NFL field
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What started out as a hobby -- mentoring young girls in dance as part of her Miss Norfolk State University platform during her college days -- has long since turned into a career for Eiesha Williamson, a 2000 graduate of Plum High School.
Miss Williamson is one of four captains on the NFL Carolina Panthers TopCats cheerleading squad. She also is founder of Making A Difference Everywhere, or MADE Today Inc., a dance education program she started in 2001 shortly after being named Miss Norfolk State.
She charged $5 a dance session and had 15 students.
"We now have 300 students in five locations, and the program has expanded to include cheerleading, dance, gymnastics camp and pageantry," said Miss Williamson, 30.
The program has moved with her as she continued her education and is currently headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., where she is living and pursuing a doctorate at Capella University.
"MADE Today really started out as something I liked to do and ended up becoming a career for me," she said.
She is the first to admit it's an unusual career choice for someone who never took a formal dance course. She also concedes that her journey from the track at Plum High School to an NFL cheerleading squad is equally unlikely.
"I think the biggest life lesson I have learned is to take advantage of every opportunity because you never know what it will bring," Miss Williamson said. "I never thought I would be a professional cheerleader."
She also believes in surrounding herself with positive role models -- and hopes that she serves as a role model for the girls in MADE Today.
"I think sometimes the students see all the glory. They see [the TopCats] in our makeup and hair and they see our outfits, but they don't realize we have to exercise every day to stay in shape and not just for game day. We eat well everyday ... and we sweat."
It's a work ethic that her mother, Karen Jones, respects.
"She is not only an athlete, but someone who others can look up to and follow in every endeavor," Ms. Jones said. "She is an athlete, scholar and someone who has made a tremendous impact on her community in both Pittsburgh and the Carolinas."
Miss Williamson said she began with baton twirling, which she stumbled across when she was in elementary school.
"I started baton twirling when I was 10, which really is a relatively late age at the level I was twirling," she said. "I just had the ability to pick it up quickly and people couldn't believe it."
As a track and field star at Plum High School, she credits Coach Joe Ionta for encouraging her to develop the self-discipline needed on the track and in twirling.
"I was probably a better track runner than baton-twirler," she said. "But Coach Ionta played a significant role in my life because he really led me forward in both."
Miss Williamson recalled how her mother drove her, baton in hand, to Norfolk State University for her freshman year of college.
But when she arrived at marching band tryouts, the band director told her the band didn't have baton twirlers. The band did have a dance squad affiliated with it.
"My mother told me that we didn't drive eight hours for nothing," Miss Williamson recalled. Her mom also told her that she'd "just have to learn how to dance," she said.
The tryout for the dance squad was the first time she danced without a baton in her hand.
"It was definitely a new experience," she said. "Probably the hardest thing was learning how to stop looking up instead of straight ahead."
Miss Williamson made the squad despite never having taken a professional dance class. It was with similar fearlessness that she tried out for the TopCats a few years later.
"I had just moved to Charlotte and a friend went to a Panthers game. He called me up and said, 'Eiesha, I saw the dancers and I think you should be a TopCat,' " she recalled of the conversation in 2005. "I have never been to an NFL or NBA game, never saw the dancers or their moves."
Curious, she looked up the audition information and learned that auditions would be held in a week. Most participants had been preparing routines all year.
"I figured I would just go up there and see what happened," she said, adding she attended a clinic to learn more about the process.
"I showed up and just kept making it to the next round," she said.
She kept getting called back, first from a pool of 300 to eventually 35.
"The first day of practice I still couldn't believe I was on the team," Miss Williamson said.
The first game seemed even more unreal.
"I was just trying to remember the choreography," she said. "It was so surreal. I had never been in the stands, let alone on the field. I kept asking 'Am I really here?' "
It was also her first time using pompoms.
She cheered with the TopCats in 2005, then left to earn her master's degree in psychology at DeVry University.
She returned in 2010 and hopes to stay with the team for a few more years.
"I absolutely see myself as a role model," Miss Williamson said. "I hope to do this until my boots fall off ... as long as I can wear the uniform and continue to inspire girls."
First Published August 9, 2012 5:00 am