Everyone has loved or hated (or been) a cheerleader. But before cheerleaders were the cutest girls on campus, they were the cutest guys on campus — and they didn’t shake pom-poms or leap into human pyramids.
In the late 19th century, American football was fairly new — a particularly militaristic and organized adaptation of rugby. As college leagues developed, they attracted riotous young spectators eager for a break from the academic grind. Colleges and high schools were experiencing a major growth spurt because of urbanization and land-grant legislation. As audiences grew bigger, the lone guy rising in the stands to try to start the wave or a cheer couldn’t quite get the job done.
Instead, lone cheerleaders — often called yell leaders or rooter kings — were appointed to take to the field and pep up the crowd, control booing and hammer the school fight song into everyone’s heads. Since almost all students at all schools were men, and since the job of yell leader seemed to demand a charismatic but also martial presence, cheerleaders were men. One of the first was the University of Minnesota’s Johnny Campbell, who first cheered the Golden Gophers in 1898. Universities across the country — from the Ivy League to new state schools in the American South and West — followed suit, as did high schools nationwide.