Split Personality: Competitive cheerleading a passion for Hammonton football player

Sean Ryker first took the football field in fifth grade. Two years later he started to cheer. He's still doing both.

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"It’s a girls’ sport."

Sean Ryker has heard those words over and over again, and they’re almost always delivered in a condescending tone.

"Boys shouldn’t be cheerleaders. Football players especially."

"How is it even possible?"

“That is the biggest question I get, how I play football and cheer at the same time,” the Hammonton High School senior said. “I just laugh at this point. They’re like, 'how do you do a halftime routine if you have football too?' and I go 'I take my pads off and put my skirt on' and they start laughing at me.”

The 18-year-old hopes his joke leads to more questions, or an honest discussion.

An unexpected journey

Ryker loves football.

And Ryker loves cheerleading.

But, it's not the sport most people envision.

He’s a competitive cheerleader.

“Think of sideline cheerleading on steroids, with 30 girls and boys on a floor at once,” Ryker, 18, said. “We flip, we stunt, we hold human beings over our heads, it’s intense. You’ll never see anything like that.”

Ryker understands the quizzical looks those words sometimes induce. He had them once too.

The teen was first exposed to cheerleading through his mother, Angel Ryker, who has been photographing cheer events professionally for the past 13 years.

When her son was about 10, she enlisted him to help carry and set up equipment.

His views of cheerleading were much different at the time.

“Rah rahs and pompoms,” Ryker said. “I didn’t even know guys cheerleaded. I had no idea. It was the way you normally thought about cheerleaders — skirts and girly stuff. It’s not really anything like it is at all.”

Competitive cheerleading involves a large group of boys and girls, tumbling, performing stunts, dancing and more. (Picture the hit film, “Bring It On.”)

ESPN has broadcast numerous cheer events over the years, but it took in-person experience to open Ryker’s eyes.

However, he wasn’t interested in getting involved until a family friend approached him about joining a cheer squad.

“He’s like 'I’d really like you to cheer.' I was like, 'I’m not cheering, I’m a football player, there’s no way I’m cheerleading,'” Ryker said. “He said 'I can get you on magazine covers; you can make money off this. You can travel around the country' … he also said girls too.”

That was quite a pitch for a seventh grader, so Ryker decided to give it a go.

Mom took some convincing.

“I wanted no part of my boys cheerleading, none whatsoever,” said Angel Ryker, referring to Sean and his older brother Jonathan. “I didn’t want it because of the (stigma) it carries, and Sean was at an age where he was going to get tortured.”

She was right, but Sean Ryker found the fun almost immediately.

“The first stunt I did by myself with a coed was a toss hands,” Ryker said. “You just take the girl, grab her by the waist, throw her up and catch her. It’s like a clean form (in lifting), lift, throw and catch. I’m like 'that’s pretty awesome, I can just toss a human being and catch her.' That was the hook.”

Ryker, eager to share his excitement with others, eventually encouraged Jonathan to become a cheerleader, too.

But Ryker found a different response when he opened up to some of his friends.

“'You’re a cheerleader?' 'Really?' 'How could you do this and be a cheerleader?'” they asked him. “'Are you gay?' 'You can’t do that.' 'That’s a girls’ sport.' … It was really devastating to me because these are my close friends telling me I’m gay for cheerleading over something that was just a sport. I thought it was cool and something I could do, and they really brought it down. I guess it’s the stereotype they had on guy cheerleaders. They really shut it down and it hurt me a lot.”

Ryker didn’t quit though. 

Instead, he cut off the bullies and maintained relationships with those that kept an open mind.

Dylan Police was one of those friends. He encouraged Ryker to try out for football in fifth grade.

“People would always make fun of him for it, I’d have his back,” Police said. “They don’t understand it’s more than waving pompoms and cheering the football team. It takes a real athlete to do what he does.”

'The ultimate sport'

Ryker smirked at the question.

“Is cheerleading a sport?”

“If you would’ve asked me that in sixth grade, my answer was 'no, 100 percent no, no way,'” he said. “But now I think so, yeah, 100 percent. It’s working to be in the Olympics.”

Cheer was given provisional status by the International Olympic Committee in December 2016, the first step toward approval for the Summer Games.

Regardless of the IOC's decision, Ryker knows cheerleading is a legitimate sport.

“I work harder at a cheer practice then I’ve ever worked at a football practice. Sorry coaches,” he said. “Definitely harder than any wrestling practice, baseball practice, football practice, soccer practice, any practice at all. I’ve seen girls that could probably take on half a football team. I’ve seen injuries that are gruesome from cheerleading that are 10 times worse than anything in football. I’ve seen work ethic. I’ve seen people start from nothing and turn into something in a week from cheerleading because people are so dedicated to the sport. I’ve seen the biggest upsets and underdogs happening in cheerleading. I think this is the ultimate sport without a doubt.”

Ryker’s impact on the football field owes credit to his cheerleading.

When he first started in midgets, he considered himself “4 (feet) of fury and 60 pounds of pain.” He was short and scrawny and “every girl towered over me.”

He was physical, but his size was a hinderance.

Then he started cheerleading.

When he went into eighth-grade football, one year after he started cheerleading, the difference was noticeable.

“'You shouldn’t be putting up 135 pounds on bench the first day in,'” coaches and teammates would tell Ryker, he said. “It was kind of eye-opening for them and me too. I never really realized how much it helped me until I got into the weight room.”

Ryker, now 5-feet-7-inches tall and 185 pounds, entered Friday’s playoff game with three rushing touchdowns as the Blue Devils’ top back this season.

“Before he was always just the little guy on the team, the kid who messed around,” Police said. “Cheer is lifting consistently, and when his body kept growing and growing and he kept getting stronger and stronger, he became a force on the field.”

'Best decision of my life'

During Hammonton’s 21-7 loss to Kingsway on Oct. 20, Angel Ryker was shooting the game when one of her son's teammates asked how he got so strong.

She told him cheerleading; he responded with an eyebrow raise.

Perception is hard to change, even around cheer itself.

“I was away for work (last) weekend (in Raleigh, North Carolina) and someone asked me what team my daughter was on, and I said no, it’s my son,” Angel Ryker recalled. “My boys cheer, and he was so rude and indignant to me.”

“I get looks all the time,” Sean Ryker added. “I walk into a Wawa after cheer practice and they look at me and ask, 'are you a wrestler? You’re built, you look like a wrestler.' I’m like 'no man, I’m a cheerleader.' 'They go, cheerleader? I didn’t know cheerleaders look like that,' that stereotype.”

Even Sean’s younger brother A.J., now in eighth grade, is still adjusting to it.

“I want everyone to be accepting of it, including my son,” said Angel Ryker, who added A.J. gets frustrated how often cheerleading takes over the household. “It drives me crazy when he talks negative about it, but he’s still young, he listens to other kids, 'I can’t believe boys are cheerleaders, your brothers are cheerleaders.'”

The Rykers believe that perception will change over time, but other boys need confirmation and support.

“I have people, young boys, who started cheerleading when I did, (message) me, ‘Hey, I know you cheerleaded when you were this age, I’m getting picked on in school, how did you get through it?’ ‘I really want to start cheerleading but I don’t know how to do it.’ ‘I don’t know how my parents are going to feel about it, my friends,’” Ryker said. “… I just try to tell them get through it. Middle school sucks, people are mean, everyone’s a bully there, you kind of get through it, if you want it that bad.”

Ryker’s reassurance is born of his own success.

The original recruiting pitch that got Ryker started — while over the top at the time — is proving true.

Ryker was a model for a uniform company called Rebel Athletic, appearing on their magazine cover distributed throughout competitions. He now models for Varsity, just did a shoe commercial, has shown up on billboards and is currently honing his broadcasting skills so he can work as a sideline reporter for competitions that could be broadcast nationally and maybe even internationally.

Those gigs have helped him financially.

“I’m not working at McDonald’s, that’s for sure,” he said with a laugh.

Ryker met his current girlfriend when he first started cheerleading. And as far as travel, the Rykers are gone every weekend from December to May, traveling to cheer competitions all along the East Coast and throughout the South.

So when the questions start, the hateful comments come out, the looks of disgust flash across people’s faces, Ryker doesn’t react. He wishes they had an open mind, but if he can’t change their opinion, he believes that’s their loss.

“Some of my best friends I’ve made through cheerleading, some of my best decisions I made through cheerleading, my mom has a job through cheerleading, my dad’s involved in cheerleading,” Ryker said. “This has probably been the best decision of my life.”

Josh Friedman: @JFriedman57; 856-486-2431; jfriedman2@gannettnj.com

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