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Cheerleader/Rocket Scientist (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday January 3, 2007 4:34PM; Updated: Wednesday January 3, 2007 5:02PM
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Yeah, we know -- those people at Mission Control never looked like this.
Yeah, we know -- those people at Mission Control never looked like this.
Courtesy of Houston Texans
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Every math and science elective her high school offered, Williams took. Her senior year, she wrote gobs of essays, underwent a two-day observation at problem-solving and group work, and won a $10,000 scholarship from Cessna. She went to Wichita State, got that aerospace engineering degree and didn't watch much football. "I studied a lot," she said.

She got the gig with Jacobs, moved to Houston and every time she went home, her mom pulled people over and said, "This is my daughter. She's an engineer at NASA."

That first year Williams was in Houston, Jacobs had a family day at AstroWorld, a now torn-down amusement park. She went with some co-workers and when they saw an advertisement at Reliant Stadium trumpeting cheerleader tryouts, Williams joked about trying out so she could finally see an NFL field.

"That was it," she said. "No one ever talked about it again."

Until a year later, when one of her colleagues sent her a link to the 2005 tryouts. He and another co-worker had decided the best way to meet girls was for Williams to become a cheerleader. They'd buy her lunch, once a week for a year, if she'd try out.

"I stood on that line with 1,000 gorgeous women and I called them and said, 'You're going to owe me sushi every week," she said. But then she somehow got whittled into the half-cut group. Then the 75 that got the two-week rehearsal audition. She went to the personality interview in a suit, carrying her rocket scientist resume. She got picked.

And she was totally mortified, this woman with a pilot's license, to tell her colleagues. "I didn't want people to lose any respect for me," Williams said. "There is this perception about what a cheerleader is."

The Texans' cheerleaders are indeed pom squad coaches and fitness instructors and aspiring singers. But there's also a Stanford grad who works at a major investment management firm and a woman who coordinates patient care for a home healthcare agency in the group. In her first year, Williams did receive a couple of raised eyebrows from the cheerleaders for her outside-football life; this year, her second, not so much.

"The Texans are a somewhat conservative organization," she said. "Football is about family and they absolutely want well-rounded people working for them."

I wanted to know who had lamer pick-up lines, rocket scientists or football players, and Williams said she couldn't answer -- her team doesn't interact with players. They do interact with ticket holders and sponsors and fans, and every week, the five (out of 33) cheerleaders who don't make that game's on-field squad spend the game schmoozing and playing ambassador. They're a part of the organization, and they have to believe they're a vital part of the gameday experience.

It's not like the money makes it worth it. Pay is minimum wage, which barely covers gas money. Starting in June, Texans cheerleaders practice three days a week, increasing to four days once the season starts. Williams' current project manager is in Germany, which for the last month has meant Williams is in charge, leaving her with far-too-frequent 6:30 a.m. to midnight days.

"All the girls have to work their butts off," she said, refusing to say her career is more taxing. "Obviously my perception and opinion of cheerleaders has changed drastically."

The biggest surprise, she said, is that there's no cattiness, no personal subterfuge. This is the first time she's worked with women (on her 40-or-so person project at NASA, there are just two other women and, for the record, they love how she moonlights) and she said that's somehow made her more confident.

Williams' boyfriend, a Raytheon pilot, obviously thinks the NASA thing should cover that. But when Williams returns home now, her mom ask waitresses, "Did you know you're serving a Houston Texans cheerleader?"

"You know how moms are," Williams said, "always bragging."

It is something to be proud of. Williams does occasionally sound a little ambivalent, if not defensive, and she does, after all, say things like, "Beauty doesn't last forever," and "I'd much prefer people speak of me as an engineer."

And yet, even as Williams sits at the Johnson Space Center, helping open new worlds for future exploration, it's the cheerleading gig that's let her open new worlds in real time.

Part of her contract includes 30 community service appearances a year. During the last week of this season, she helped run a junior cheer program for 100 girls, age 6-12. The little girls learned a dance, then danced it at halftime with the grown-up girls and afterwards, the mother of one of the little girls who'd missed a practice, tracked Williams down.

The woman's daughter hadn't wanted to put on her little white boots, so sure she'd embarrass herself, until Williams had -- she thought -- offhandedly told the girl everything would be fine just before the show. The little girl believed her, everything indeed was, and the mother had some words for Williams she doesn't ever hear when she's in her lab coat.

"I had no idea I had the power to inspire young people the way that I apparently did," Williams said, sounding a little choked up. "I never even knew I would want to."

Yeah, and she never knew she wanted to be a cheerleader either.

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