Packers cheerleaders: From Lombardi to today
Mary Jane van Duyse Sorgel didn’t know a star was born on a chilly November afternoon at Wrigley Field as she performed at halftime of the Green Bay Packers’ 1959 game against the Chicago Bears. The blond-haired, gold-costumed dynamo was the head majorette for the Green Bay Packer Band, focused on twirling her baton that day to the delight of more than 46,000 fans.
She had flair. And talent. And looks to boot.
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It was the type of combination that caught the eye of a Chicago Tribune reporter, who dubbed her “Green Bay’s Golden Girl” in the newspaper the next day. It was the type of combination that later in the season grabbed the attention of Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, who figured Sorgel the perfect young woman to form a tasteful Green Bay cheerleading team that fit the area’s modest Midwestern values.
Two years later, the Green Bay Packer Golden Girls were on the sideline, a group of 16 recruited by Sorgel from her dance studio in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
“We were trendsetters because of the fact that Coach Lombardi came,” said Sorgel, who, at age 80, still resides in Sturgeon Bay. “We were the normal person. We aren’t like they are today with some of those really risqué costumes. I think we did a lot of different things on the field, too.”
Although Green Bay currently is one of just six NFL teams without a professional cheerleading squad associated with its franchise, the Packers have a long history of cheerleading teams, dating all the way back to Sorgel in the early 1960s.
It was Sorgel who formed a group that would help select girls for the team each year. Requirements included a willingness to work hard, stay in shape and commit to learning routines. Cheerleaders had to pay for their own pom-poms and gear. Often, the team of teenagers and young women would practice in Sorgel’s front yard.
“Cars would honk their horns as we were doing our pom routines,” said former Golden Girls cheerleader Dana Berns, an elementary school physical education teacher in Mequon, Wis.
During her time in charge of the team, from 1961-72, Sorgel never missed a rehearsal or a game. And she made sure the Golden Girls were about more than simply waving pom-poms on the sideline. She began leading vocal chants at the urging of Lombardi and is credited with being the first to say the now famous “Go Pack Go” chant on the field.
“With my group, we did a lot of gymnastics, handsprings and aerials. We did specific things,” Sorgel said. “Some twirls. I had three national champions twirling in my group. We did dances. I worked with the band director many times. We’d line up across the entire field. We had sideline cheers. We had bench cheers. We had routines. It was really fun.”
Sorgel became a mentor to young girls in the area. She recruited Michele Ozkan at a dance camp in the Wisconsin Dells in the late 1960s, and the two have remained friends since.
“It was a gift to me that I just never expected,” said Ozkan, a kindergarten teacher in Sarasota, Fla. “And Mary Jane continues to be a gift to me. It was very special, but I’m glad I didn’t understand fully how magnificent everything was because it probably would have made me scared.”
When Sorgel finally decided to pursue a different career path after the 1972 season, the Packers formed a group called “The Packerettes,” which featured young girls who tumbled and performed routines. That group lasted from 1973-76 before Green Bay opted to change the image of its cheerleaders and hired an NFL-approved professional team called “The Sideliners.”
Lorraine Luisier was a Sideliners member from 1977-86 and said she made $10 per game — not enough to cover the cost of travel and parking for the game. She described The Sideliners as a group of 24 to 32 women that focused less on cheerleading and more on dancing and pumping up the fans.
“They wanted to get rid of the young aspect and bring it into something more mature, on the level of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, but not so sexy,” Luisier said. “Green Bay did not want the sexy.
“So we were more classy, more covered. The girls in Dallas, their uniforms were sexy. That’s what they’re selling on the sideline. We weren’t like that. We were there to cheer on the squad, dance and perform and make the Packer organization look good.”
After the 1987 season, interest from Packers fans in having a group of pro cheerleaders waned. A local television station conducted a poll to determine fan interest, and it was split nearly 50/50. Packers vice president Bob Harlan released a statement citing the poll vote as part of the basis for discontinuing pro cheerleaders in Green Bay in 1988.
Green Bay, Chicago, Cleveland, the New York Giants, Detroit and Pittsburgh are the only NFL teams that do not use pro cheerleaders.
But the Packers couldn’t stay away from having some form of cheer squad. So in the early 1990s, they opted to use cheerleaders from nearby University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Over the years, UW-Green Bay and St. Norbert College have both cheered at Packers home games.
This season, UW-Green Bay has a squad of 10 women and seven men who run out giant flags as the Packers are introduced before the game. St. Norbert features 14 women on its team, and the two squads rotate cheering locations at halftime.
“We get a lot of compliments,” said Ann Rodrian, UW-Green Bay’s cheer coach for the past 23 years. “When we do different events, sometimes groups want Packers cheerleaders. When we have traveled, people enjoy watching us. They comment on how refreshing it is to see young people on the field and the type of product that’s out there. It’s all been very positive.”
In a sense, Rodrian notes, the Packers have reverted back to the traditional model that Lombardi envisioned more than 50 years ago. And the Golden Girls, enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame in 2007, always will be a part of the team’s lore.
“That was the most significant group of cheerleaders because they were there during the first Super Bowl,” Ozkan said. “They were there during the time of Vince Lombardi. We have other great coaches, but that’s like the pillar, the building block of the Packers. We have the Lombardi Trophy. To be part of that, with that richness and that greatness, I don’t know how that will ever be equaled.”
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