Sam Byrd is no stranger to cheerleading. In fact, it’s his job.
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by David W Bullanday
Growing up in Conway, Arkansas, home of the annual Toad Suck Festival and just one high school, Sam Byrd’s eyes were peeled on the cheerleaders and twirlers while all the other football fans chanted “Nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts, we’ve been screwed!”
“That was the really visual part, and I was fascinated by the cheerleaders doing back flips,” says Byrd. “I started taking tumbling classes with other friends in my neighborhood. Along the way they would drop out, but I kept going, learning how to do hand stands and back flips and improving my technique and strength and flexibility.”
When Byrd and his parents moved to Houston, he enrolled at Bellaire High School and became the only male cheerleader along with about a dozen women. He cheered all four years in college at Houston Baptist University, where in 2005 the staff named him the outstanding senior in marketing and the student body chose him as Mr. HBU, even though he was openly gay and an Episcopalian.
“Being voted Mr. HBU—I call it my beauty queen moment,” Byrd laughs. “It was at the convocation towards the end of the year, and the president of the university was giving out awards. He was saying how Mr. HBU embodies all the best qualities of the university, and when he announced me, I was in shock for a minute. I didn’t get out of my chair. I was sitting with the sororities, and I said, ‘Did he just call my name? Did he just call my name? Did he just call my name?’
“I fanned myself,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘Stand up, smile, maintain your composure—and don’t trip!’ My mom cried and my dad nearly cried.”
Now 28, Byrd is completing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Houston, competing with a cheerleading squad that trains in Sugar Land, and, as public relations manager for Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS), promoting the January 24–February 5 performances of the new Bring It On: The Musical at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
The Broadway-bound show, featuring a number of top Tony Award winners, is inspired by the popular Bring It On movie franchise, with some changes such as an added transgender character. Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) wrote the book, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), and Amanda Green (High Fidelity) created the score. Andy Blankenbuehler (In the Heights) directs the high-energy cast that combines dances, stunts, and cheers into choreography that Byrd calls “cheerography.”
“It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen,” says Byrd. “The cheerleading routines are visually stimulating.”
The show’s ensemble includes some familiar faces from the FOX-TV series So You Think You Can Dance, along with skilled competitive cheerleaders whose combined achievements total more than 25 national and 50 team titles in gymnastics and choreography.
Byrd has taught cheerleading camps and served as a judge who helps pick cheerleading squads at schools throughout southeast Texas. “After graduating from college, I thought that was the natural end of my cheerleading hobby,” he says. But in 2007, a friend lured him into an international competition that doesn’t have an age cap. His first year back, his team won the Mardi Gras National Competition, which sponsored them to the world championships at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
“We were the silver medalists,” Byrd beams.
At 6’ 2½’’ and about 220 pounds, he says he’s now part of Wrath, a team of 12 men and 12 women who train for two hours every Sunday, perfecting a 2½-minute routine they hope will lead them to this year’s world championships.
“Every victory we have is a win in itself,” he says. “When you place first, it’s such a thrilling moment. It’s so exhilarating.”
Tickets for Bring It On: The Musical start at $24 and are available online at TUTS.com, by phone at 713/558-TUTS (8887), outside the Houston area at (888) 558-3882, or in person at the TUTS box office, 800 Bagby at Walker. [email protected], a cabaret-style event at Artista Restaurant for TUTS’s LGBT friends, follows the performance on Thursday, January 26. Visit TUTS.com/OUT for more information.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.