Project: Cheerleader

Thirty-six-year-old wife, mother, and career woman Leigh Gauger embarkd on a secret mission to be a professional cheerleader. Again. If only for a little while.

August 28 2010, 7:06 PM

A fabulous parade of pretty young things saunters into Invesco Field. Women with perfect hair, perfectly made faces, and perfect bodies. Many of them wearing velour sweat suits and toting Louis Vuitton bags. The scent of heavily perfumed tension is thick in the air. Open auditions are about to begin for the 2004–2005 Denver Broncos cheerleader squad.

This year, for the first time, the Broncos organization advertised open auditions on television, which might explain why the turnout is the largest ever. About 400 women have come hoping to fill one of the 34 pairs of those famous fringed chaps. Whatever your sideline pleasure, there’s a cheerleader here for you. All (very shapely) sizes and colors are present. And yet, although it is an ethnically diverse bunch, it is also the expected convention of youthful beauties, in their late teens or early 20s. Except for one.

Quietly warming up among the wannabe-Broncos girls, who are now peeling off their sweat suits and turning a wide stadium hallway into what looks like a giant, girls-only game of Twister, there is a girl who is different. Compared to the look-alike Beyoncés, Britneys, J. Los, and Lucy Lius, she’s a Jaclyn Smith from “Charlie’s Angels” – the original one. Her name is Leigh Gauger. She’s a 36-year-old wife and mother, and an advertising sales representative at the Denver Business Journal. She also happens to be a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

Promptly at 10 a.m. on this first Sunday in April, the Queen Bee of Broncos cheerleading, Teresa Schroeder, summons the women onto the audition dance floor. Tall, blonde, and a former cheerleader (she was on the Broncos' inaugural cheer squad), Schroeder is now the director of cheerleading and game-day entertainment. She thanks everyone for coming and starts her welcome speech. "It's going to be a long day," she says with authority. (Actually it'll be two long days.) Schroeder outlines the schedule: The women will learn a short dance routine, they'll have about 30 minutes to rehearse, and then, in groups of three, the dancers will perform the routine for 12 judges, who are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a table, à la "American Idol."

I am one of those judges. Me - a 33-year-old, 138-pound, curly-headed brunette, who still dances like a Deadhead. The panel also includes KCNC News 4 sportscaster Steve Atkinson, Colorado Mammoth player Nick Carlson, former Broncos cheerleader Beth Wilderotter, Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie, and a guy who bid for his seat at the judge's table on eBay. Stacking the panel with media types, local celebrities, and Mr. eBay was director Schroeder's idea. The strategy is part gimmick, part science, and actually fairly ingenious. Having press and local celebs on the panel increases the chances for media interest in the Broncos cheerleaders and the team itself (this story, for example). However, recruiting a variety of "civilian" judges also helps ensure the Broncos get a cheerleading squad with something (or rather somebody) for everyone. Our votes will be tallied equally, and the girls with the most votes will wear the coveted chaps. That is, provided Schroeder's discerning eye doesn't spot any egregious selection flaws. "It's my team," Schroeder tells the judges. "And in the end I will have the final say."

Historically, Schroeder's system works, but I find it a little surprising that she hands over so much control to such novices. The eBay "winner," Kevin Goodfellow, tells me he had to pass a background check before the Broncos let him in the door.