At 92, cheerleader still showing off
During the first timeout in the first quarter of last week’s home football game against Iowa State, Texas Tech held a ceremony honoring its alumni cheerleaders.
It was the type of thing you see at most every homecoming game in America, and in many cases, such an observance would go largely overlooked. It is a good time for a quick bathroom break, affords a brief window to buy a T-shirt or grab a tray of nachos before play resumes, whatever.
But there wasn’t an empty seat to be found among the announced crowd of 57,367 Saturday afternoon in Lubbock because Jane Kuykendall was on the field yet again — and no one misses Jane when she does her famous splits.
That's because Jane is 92 years young.
Born on July 31, 1921, Kuykendall has been rooting on Texas Tech longer than most people you know have been alive. In fact, she joined the cheerleading squad at Texas Tech in 1939, quite possibly making her the oldest Tech cheerleader still giving the guns-up sign.
They were called yell leaders back in the day, of course, and there were only six of them when Kuykendall went to school. Asthma eventually forced Kuykendall to quit cheerleading, which might have been for the best anyway — she said she was so clumsy and injury-prone that “if they had a course in tiddlywinks, I’d probably break my thumb.”
But Kuykendall (pronounced “Kirkendall”) remained in relatively good shape after she graduated — a function of exercise more than diet, she admits. And after heart surgery at age 50, she recommitted herself to fitness and began teaching water aerobics at Carillon, a retirement community in Lubbock, where her mother lived at the time and Kuykendall now lives.
“When I taught the water exercising, as I would wave goodbye to my class, I would raise my leg and wave with my foot,” Kuykendall said. “So that got to be my trademark, and from that, I guess it developed into the splits.”
In the decades since she first perfected her split, Kuykendall’s flexibility has come to define her. She’s been showing off her moves to cheerleaders for decades, her splits becoming an annual tradition at the yearly cheerleading and pom squad reception. When she was 87, she met Donnie and Marie Osmond in Vegas and did the splits for them, too.
At the 2011 homecoming game against Kansas State, Texas Tech honored Kuykendall on the field for her 90th birthday, and that was the first time she showed off her abilities to the masses and garnered rave reviews.
A subsequent broken hip slowed Kuykendall down some, but when Alicia Knight, the university's Director of Development for the Chancellor’s Council and Scholarships, called Kuykendall this year to see if she was interested in performing again for homecoming, there was no hesitation.
“We called her up and said, ‘Jane can you do this? You don’t have to if you don’t want to,’” said Knight, a former Tech cheerleader herself. “So she said, ‘Well wait a minute, let me see if I can still do them,’ and the next thing you know she puts down the phone, she does her splits, she gets back on the phone and says, ‘Yep, I’ll do it.’”
So there she was on Saturday, in the end zone with 70 other alumni cheerleaders at Jones AT&T Stadium. During the ceremony, Texas Tech highlighted its 10 most senior alumni, and when they finally closed with Kuykendall — mother of two, grandmother of five, great-grandmother of 12 — she had her arms up, doing a split in the end zone. Naturally, the response was thunderous.
"When she dropped down to her split and 60,000 people gave her a standing ovation, we all got chill bumps," said Billy Smith, a former Texas Tech cheerleader who has been the head of the alumni cheerleading association since 1987. "She’s just got that west Texas happy, friendly [personality], and that’s the spirit of Texas Tech."
However, Kuykendall jokes that the fans probably gave her an ovation just for being alive.
“It’s ridiculous to be noted for being so old, but I guess it is an accomplishment,” she said with a hearty laugh. “When they announced how old I was and I did the split, [the fans] couldn’t even imagine someone as old as I am walking and breathing and chewing gum at the same time.”
Kuykendall said she’s not sure how long she’ll keep doing the splits or whether she’ll be back next homecoming to try it again.
“I think it would get kind of boring for everybody,” she said. “We might as well let me retire in glory.”
But Texas Tech will certainly keep having her as long as she wants to be a part of the celebration.
“Absolutely, we want her down on that field every year,” Knight said. “She represents everything about Texas Tech spirit, with her passion and that smile on her face. She’s ready to get her guns up through the good times and the bad times, and you know, she just represents everything that we are about.”
Added Smith: “In this time and era, it’s great to have someone in their 90s who is that gung-ho to represent your university with such pizazz. It’s just an emotional thing for so many people, because we’ve known her for so long and we just don’t want it to ever end. You count your blessings that there’s people who make all of us feel young.
“She’s always been a mentor to all of us, and it’s people like her that make me a proud Red Raider. Sometimes you think you have to grow up and act mature, and when I see Jane doing the splits, I realize that I don’t.”
Kuykendall has some time before she has to decide whether her most recent public performance will be her last, but something tells me that if she’s able, she’ll be on the field again next year, at age 93, too.
"People ask me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I tell them I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel," Kuykendall said, with her west Texas twang. "In the olden days, when you were my age, you were real old, But now you’re just kind of like everyone else if you’re still here. Us old codgers can carry on."