When Reporter Stephanie Salter filled out a questionnaire from the San Francisco 49ers last fall in preparation for her stint as a Niner Nugget (page 38), most of her answers—name, address, dress size—were standard. But a few should have warned the 49ers that this was no dutiful, run-of-the-mill pompon girl. Under Hobbies, for instance, Salter had written, "Music (I play the flute—think we could work up a solo act for me?)."
The 49ers could not, but they did agree to let her be a Nugget for a week, long enough to gather material for her article. That meant Salter would be appearing before a crowd for the first time since her cheerleading days at Garfield High in Terre Haute, Ind. "That was the big time," she says, "Cheerleader was the most important thing next to Homecoming Queen. At 17 it was a real trip making a crowd obey you. You'd whip them into a frenzy, then hold up your hand and they'd shut up, just like that. And there was nothing better than walking into the gym in your uniform. Everyone knew you were hot stuff."
After she entered Purdue, her notions about what was hot stuff changed. "It was a time of radical politics, and being a cheerleader was bourgeois. They were ragheads, dumb as a box of rocks," Salter says, scattering Midwestern idioms like corn husks. She turned to other pursuits, such as tap-dancing lessons and peace marches. "I'd dance first," she says. "Then I'd go out and demonstrate." She was also big on journalism (she joined the staff of the Purdue Exponent) and 1940s music. "When Woody Herman came to Purdue, I was the only person on the paper who knew he wasn't a comedian," she says.
The sports editor of the Exponent then was SI Reporter Kent Hannon. He gave Salter her first assignment, a story on a day in the life of the Purdue athletic director. "I thought she'd never get it done, but to my surprise she turned it in, all written out in longhand," says Hannon.
By 1970 she had learned to type with two fingers and had become editor of the Exponent, and after her graduation in 1971 she came to New York and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. A year and a halt later, decked out in both a black gown and black bow tie, Salter made history of sorts when she tried to crash an all-male dinner given by the New York Baseball Writers Association. Reports of her eviction from the dinner filtered back to her hometown Terre Haute Tribune. An Indiana radio station got her on a call-in show via long distance so that local people could talk to her. "They were polite," Salter says, "but they couldn't understand why I was making such a big deal about not being able to go to a dinner."
Salter sees a parallel between the Niner Nuggets, who are promotional people more than they are pompon girls, and Garfield High's cheerleaders. "You can't ask 60,000 people at a pro game to give you a locomotive, but the motivation for being a Nugget goes back to that feeling of walking into a room in a uniform. It still singles you out," she says.
It's too bad the 49ers did not let Salter play her flute, or do her Singin' in the Rain tap-dance routine. Either one of them might have allowed her to follow the exhortations of a sardonic friend who sent her off to San Francisco with the words, "Salter, you're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star."