Hand pick any Baylor sporting event over the last four years and he is likely to have been there, leading the cheers and chants for fans. Starting with Baylor’s epic win over TCU in 2011, Pearcy, Ark., senior Dakota Ethridge, two-year captain and four-year member of Baylor’s yell leaders, has become a special part of Baylor history.
When Ethridge walked into the McLane Student Life Center for his interview, he began by saying, “I’m afraid you won’t have much to write about … I don’t know if I really have a story for you.” As he opened up about his time at Baylor and his experiences as a yell leader, Ethridge inadvertently revealed that his story is found in the subtleties. There is, in fact, a story from him.
You have likely seen Ethridge at these sporting events. He’s hard to miss: tall, strong, blond hair, blue eyes. He even admits he sticks out like sore thumb, as he is the only blond male member on the team. Judging from his prototypical physique and natural skillset for cheerleading, one may assume he has been doing it for years, certainly before coming to Baylor.
It is quite the opposite, though. Ethridge’s journey to becoming the face of Baylor’s yell leaders is a long and winding road. His “poster-boy” status of Baylor yell-leading came close to never happening at all.
In high school, Ethridge was a championship-caliber competitor in track & field. He focused mainly on hurdles and competed with the high school’s tennis and swim teams in his off-season. During those years as a track star in high school, he did not foresee cheerleading in his future in any capacity, he said.
He and his teammates would often play during downtime at track meets or practices, trying different flips and such in the high jump pit. Ethridge learned how to do a backhand spring, one of the essential stunts with which every cheerleader is familiar. This caught the attention of his peers. Many of them told him he would fit right in as a cheerleader. His answer? A flat-out no.
Students from outside the track team also pleaded with Ethridge to join the cheerleading team during his junior and senior years in high school. Even his own mom told him to try out, but he continued to reject the propositions.
“I came to Fall Premiere one year and my mom saw one of the cheerleader guys and was like, ‘You could do that,’” Ethridge said. “Then I was like, ‘Nope. Not doing that.’”
He turned down the opportunity to join the track team at the University of Mississippi and had his sights set on Baylor. After he had already chosen to enroll at Baylor, a friend from high school started to show interest in Ethridge’s potential future as a cheerleader. His friend competed in cheer events all through high school and was planning on trying out for a college team herself.
“A month away from tryouts, my friend from high school had a look at the requirements and she was like, ‘You can’t learn all that. You’re not going to be able to in a month,’” Ethridge said. “At that point, I was like, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ which was a month before tryouts. Then, two weeks before the tryouts, a week before the last clinic, I was just like, ‘I’m going to tryout. I’m just going to go for it. Why not?’”
Ethridge practiced for a week with his friend, but he couldn’t really learn much in just a week. After a last-ditch effort of practicing before the cheerleading clinics at Baylor, Ethridge stunted with some of the girls already on Baylor’s cheer squad, returned home for another week of training, then came back the next week for tryouts. He made the team, changing the course of his college career.
From refusing to participate with his high school cheerleading team to now making the cut for a collegiate co-ed cheerleading team, Ethridge had already come a long way. All of which happened in just a matter of weeks.
“When I was in high school, if I had looked a month, or two months in the future and would’ve been asked, ‘Would I have been on the cheer team at all?’ I would have never even thought it would happen,” Ethridge said. “And now, once that happened, four more years. I’m the captain of the cheer team. It’s so weird to think my past self would have never seen this coming. It’s been the best thing ever.”
Ethridge’s four-year career as a cheerleader started quickly. From day one, he was forced to learn on the fly. His first two years were a whirlwind of growth and discovery.
“Having no experience with cheer at all in my first year, I was just surviving, trying to figure what the heck I’m supposed to do,” Ethridge said. “In the second year, I was more comfortable with what I was doing. I was able to still go with the flow and have fun, but obviously I was still learning and growing.”
There was a different burden of responsibility that Ethridge had never felt before yell-leading for Baylor, not even during his competitions as a state-level hurdler.
“When I played sports in high school, it was about you just doing your job, and you try to do it as best as you can. When you mess up it’s just on you,” he said. “In contrast, there’s really the pressure of perfection in cheer. You’re in front of a crowd and if you mess up you’re showing weakness of yourself, your partner and your whole team.”
There were many variables, namely tradition and pressure, that prohibited any time for rest as a new member to the team, Ethridge said. Eventually, though, Ethridge climbed the ranks, improved as an individual and developed into the shoo-in as the team’s next captain.
Ethridge was nominated as a candidate for captaincy by his teammates during his sophomore year, a year in which he said he was not deserving of being the team captain. He knew he still had things to learn and authority above him in his sophomore year. Consequently, Ethridge did not become captain in his second year.
“Although not a big talker, he’s always used his actions to speak for him and pushes others to have the same work ethic and determination he has,” said Burke Millard, Houston sophomore and former teammate of Ethridge. “I would bet anyone currently at Baylor or a recent graduate who knows him would have a similar story to tell.”
One of Dakota’s greatest traits is his ability to bring potential to fruition, Flower Mound junior Courtney Schafer said. Schafer was Ethridge’s stunt partner on the co-ed team this year.
His junior year was a completely different situation. Ethridge knew he was the most qualified candidate for the job and what being the captain would entail, not because he’s arrogant or bossy, he said, but because he leads by example.
“I don’t necessarily like having to tell people what to do,” Ethridge said. “I enjoy leading by example, especially on that team because a lot of us started with nothing. Everyone kind of gets to the same skill level at some point, so there’s really no point of being like a boss. Setting that example gives me the authority. There’s a new batch of people, every single year. Being on the team so long, I’ve had the ability to form the team in a sense; the dynamic and the work-ethic of the team.”
Ethridge flourished into a high-level cheerleader in his four years at Baylor. Ethridge has received a few offers from professional cheerleading teams to tryout. Though he thinks his yell-leading days have likely ended with his time at Baylor, what he takes away from his college experience goes deeper than his abilities as a cheerleader.
“A lot of it has to do with the people on the team,” Ethridge said. “I feel like this whole experience has been like, ‘Yeah, I’ve learned a lot and I got to do cool things,’ but the people I’ve met have been amazing. They’re my best friends at Baylor.”
Story by: Jeffrey Swindoll | Sports Writer
Photosby: Hannah Haseloff | Lariat Photographer