It’s game day at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, home of the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers. In preparation to take the field, the necessary equipment --- uniforms, boots, eye liner and makeup --- is applied to their bodies.
Not all who will perform inside the 74,455-seat stadium wear helmets, shoulder pads and cleats to work and will be drenched in sweat and covered in grass stains when the game is finished.
During home contests, the Panthers’ "team behind the team", the 24-member TopCats cheer squad, send six-women units to each of the stadium’s four corners to help ignite the home fans while also performing in game dance routines.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in a 13-9 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, Sallie Pierce flashed a smile to a familiar face on the sidelines. The Camden native is living out a dream as a first-year member of the TopCats.
Aside from a brief foray to play softball as a youngster, the Camden High School and University of South Carolina graduate has always danced and cheered in her spare time. Now, all her hard work on the football sidelines, on the basketball court and in the dance studio is paying off as she has made her way to the pinnacle of the profession in the world’s most popular sports league.
Don’t, for a moment, think that Pierce is just another pretty face on the sidelines who knows nothing about the game or, the team for which she cheers. In Camden, the Pierce name is synonymous with athletics.
Pierce’s great-grandfather was the late Lindsay Pierce, who led the 1944 and 1957 Camden High School football teams to state titles and in 1994 was posthumously enshrined into the South Carolina Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Her father, Lindsay Pierce, was a varsity football player under head coach Billy Ammons at CHS in 1979 and 1980 and is a past Bulldog Club president. Her sister, Kayla, played softball for the Lady Bulldogs while her brother is a sophomore at CHS and is a member of the school’s wrestling and baseball teams.
As for Sallie Pierce, she was more at home being on the sidelines on Friday nights.
"Actually," she said with a laugh when asked her background in athletics, "I played softball when I was younger, but I was more of the dancer type. My sister was more the athletic type and she played softball while I just stuck to the dance side of it. I tried sports when I was younger, but dance was more my style."
Sallie Pierce was introduced to the world of dance at the age of two when her mother and Camden accountant, Jan Pierce, enrolled the oldest of her three children into the Aimin’ High Dance School. From the studio to larger stages for recitals, Pierce would eventually make her way to the sidelines at Zemp Stadium as cheerleading dovetailed with her love for dancing.
"I was a cheerleader at Camden High School all four years and I loved it," she said of trading dance shoes and ballet outfits for sneakers and a gold and black skirt. "Growing up in Camden was such fun and being able to cheer for the football team was such a good experience. And cheering in high school made me want to continue to do that when I was in college."
Following graduation from CHS in 2009, Pierce was ready to give dance and cheering a go when she arrived on the University of South Carolina campus. Trying out and making the USC dance team, Pierce was able to put her dance and cheering skills to use as she performed at Gamecock football and basketball games.
Some girls who tried out for the USC dance team, which involves cheerleading, as well, did not have the two-pronged background which Pierce possessed. Having a background in both cheerleading and dancing served her well at USC and now, with the TopCats.
"Being able to do both gave me an advantage when I was in college," Pierce said. "For the dancing, you didn’t have to tumble or, anything like that and we didn’t do that at Camden, either. I think being able to do both really did give me an advantage for a dance team in college. Now, with what I’m doing in the NFL, it’s more dance, too. I think the dancing really helped me."
Unlike many of the Panther players, TopCat members are not drafted. There are no cheerleading scouts coming to college games and searching for young ladies who seem ready to make the jump to the big leagues. There are no game films which NFL cheerleading coaches and choreographers pore over to see if a particular cheerleader has to right stuff to cut it in the NFL arena. Rather, all the TopCats come through what in football terms would be the free agent route.
With a full-time job as the assistant director of Leadership South Carolina in Columbia, Pierce was ready to take a chance at making the TopCats after having been a finalist for a spot with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in 2013.
For the TopCats, Pierce made the trip along I-77 to Charlotte for a series of tryouts starting with an informational clinic to let all the hopefuls know what will be required of them and what the job entails.
The first round involved an audition in which prospective team members performed to a music clip, provided by the TopCats, in groups of five. Being judged on dance skills, physical fitness, presentation and showmanship, those selected by the panel of judges were invited back for the second round of tryouts.
The prospective team members called back to the Queen City were again placed in groups of five and performed a dance routine taught by the TopCats’ choreographer. Those getting a call back were then brought back for an interview, a meeting, and two rehearsals along with a dance and talent competition.
Once chosen to be a semifinalist, Pierce said things became a little more nerve-wracking.
"They are very serious about making sure that you know a little about the Panthers, the organization and about football," she said of the semifinals. "After your interview you get to do a solo. Then, for your finals, they teach you two more dances of their choreography. It’s a long process and it gets kind of stressful at times but once you get through that, it’s really great."
Having grown up in a family which is actively involved in sports, when the conversation shifted to football, Pierce was hardly in the dark. "That’s a huge advantage," she said of being around and knowing a little about football. "I watched it growing up, then in high school then, in college. The NFL part of it has been new to me but I’m learning.
"I think knowing the game and having grown up in a football environment in a small town, where it is a huge thing, really helped me."
Having made it through the semis, Pierce was part of a group of finalists which were part of the TopCats’ two-week evaluation program of mandatory rehearsals. When that experience concluded, Pierce said she experienced some not so restful nights of sleep.
"I was very, very nervous," she said of the waiting period to learn whether she made the team. "You go into it with a positive attitude and hope for the best and that’s what I did. I tried to stay positive.
"Every round, you get more anxious for the results and for finals, you go perform your routine and the next day, they send you an email with the final list of the team. I was sitting at work all that morning just stressing until I got that email. As soon as I got it and saw my name on that list, it’s kind of like your life changes at that one moment and you are getting ready to start on that journey."
For Pierce and her teammates, that journey started shortly after tryouts as the women were whisked off to Myrtle Beach for a shoot in the inaugural TopCats swimsuit calendar, in which Pierce appears.
Having to commute for three-hour Wednesday evening and Saturday practices, along with pre-game practice prior to games, from her home in Columbia adds a new set of challenges which were not there for Pierce at Camden High or, at USC.
"There’s so much that goes into it," she said of being an NFL cheerleader. "In high school, you practice a few days a week after school. Then, when you get to college, it steps up and you practice more and you have workouts. Then, you also have community service appearances. Stepping up into the NFL, all of that doubles. It’s a lot of hard work but for me, it’s all been worth it."
What has been a pleasant surprise for Sallie Pierce are those occasions when she looks up in the stands at Bank of America Stadium and sees a familiar face from home. Just like her days on the USC sidelines, she said she can feel and hear the passion of the Panther fans.
"In the NFL," she said, "the fans are just so great. They really are die-hard Panther fans and you can tell that when you look up in the stands. You can feel their energy.
"My parents have come to some games and I’ve seen some Camden fans in the stands. It’s the first time my parents have gone to NFL games so, they’re experiencing this with me which has been fun. They have supported me my whole life. I love having them there."
For Sallie Pierce, the NFL cheerleding experience was something which she admitted to having thought about. It was also the next logical step on her dance/cheerleading journey.
"It’s always been a thought which was in the back of my mind," she said of becoming an NFL cheerleader. "Once I graduated from high school, I didn’t want to quit dancing so, I did it in college. Then, after college, I wasn’t ready to quit, either. So, the next step was the NFL. I’m so thankful to all the people who supported me and pushed me to follow those dreams.
Just a few minutes talking with the personable Sallie Pierce is enough to tell you that she is having a blast being part of a team of women which is as diverse as the one which they cheer for each home game. Now, her wish is that this ride goes on for many a year.
"It really is," she said when asked if this was the time of her life. "The girls on the team range from girls my age to those in their 30s with kids; but they are all motivated and have careers. That has made me more motivated as I’m still getting to live out my dream of dancing.
"I’m really loving this. And, I’ll keep trying out for as long as they will take me. I’m just very, very happy and fortunate to be where I am."