The evolution of the Green Bay cheerleaders
By Erin Hunsader
GREEN BAY – With the No. 1-seeded Green Bay Packers preparing to host a divisional playoff game this weekend, plenty of fans will be cheering on the Green and Gold from the stands.
Leading those cheers are not just cheerleaders, but an ongoing piece of Packers history.
The Green Bay Packers became one of the first professional football teams to have cheerleaders in 1931, when Green Bay’s East and West high schools’ squads graced the sidelines for several games.
The Pack cheer squad performed for more than five decades under three separate names – the Packerettes, the Golden Girls and the Green Bay Sideliners.
“I was actually a Packer Sideliner from 1978-80,” Cheryl Long said. “They changed the name a couple of times. It was Packerettes (1950), then Golden Girls (1961-72). Then it was back to Packerettes (1973-77). Then it was the Sideliners (1977-86), and then it just became ‘cheerleaders.’”
The creation of cheerleaders cheering on the Pack dates back to the times of Vince Lombardi when he recruited Door County native Mary Jane Sorgel to organize a professional cheering squad.
Sorgel, now 95, took the job recruiting young women from Door County and surrounding areas.
“I heard that (Lombardi) said he didn’t want the cheerleaders to be like the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders,” former Packerette and Green Bay Sideliner Tane Van Rite said. “He wanted us to be a bit more innocent.”
Van Rite said Green Bay cheerleaders were younger than most of their counterparts in the NFL at that time.
She said she was barely in high school the first year she tried out.
“When I tried out for Packerettes, you had to be thirteen,” Van Rite said. “I tried out at that age and I was on it for three years. For the Sideliners, you had to be sixteen, and I was sixteen. I was lucky that way.”
At that young of an age, Van Rite said the cheerleaders still traveled with the team and also made a little bit of green for themselves.
She said the cheerleaders received $10-15, depending on whether or not it was a home or an away game.
“Everybody was so nice and hard-working,” she said. “You weren’t doing it for the money.”
The cheerleaders were also athletes. Van Rite said they learned to perform 20-30 routines per game, with the challenge of not having a recording, but live band music that they had to dance to, which she said they didn’t get to rehearse with until they were on the field.
“We never had set music to a recording,” Van Rite said. “We had live band music, which was very difficult, very challenging. We performed live performances that were on the sideline that echoed, so our sound system was hard to hear. Nobody up in the stands knew why we were off.”
Van Rite said Shirley Van, the coach at the time, would have a cassette recording of whatever the band gave her, but that wasn’t necessarily what the band would play on the field, so it was hard for (the cheerleaders) to look good, but people didn’t care.
“People were forgiving to that,” she said. “They liked that we were smiling and energetic.”
Beyond the musical challenges, Van Rite said, the other struggle was of course the temperature – it is the Frozen Tundra.
“We didn’t have sideline heaters or anything like that,” she said. “One year, John Brockington (former Packers running back), himself bought each of us insulated capes, and they were very nice.”
Even with the challenges, Van Rite said it was an honor to be a part of the Packers franchise and be in Lambeau Field.
“In a way, you kind of felt locally famous,” she said. “My dad was so proud that I was a Packer cheerleader.”
Van Rite said her family actually had an interesting tie to Lombardi.
“My grandfather sewed Vince Lombardi’s coats,” she said. “Frank Aiello was his name. He was a tailor right over from Italy… Everybody we knew, who knew Vince Lombardi, said he was a very polite man.”
Van Rite said she didn’t know Lombardi, but did meet former player and head coach Bart Starr and his wife, and was able to form a friendship with them because of her connection as a former Packer cheerleader.
“They were/are the kindest people, and they appreciated us – because we were never winning back then,” Van Rite said of the years when she was cheering. “It made us proud to be such a part of a hometown organization.”
She and Long shared the field as well, Van Rite said,
“She was on it the three years when I was a Sideliner,” she said.
The cheerleading alumni continue to get together and cheer on the Green and Gold.
Most recently, Long said, they participated in Past the Pom challenge, which was a challenge several NFL alumni cheerleaders participated in to keep spirits up when fans couldn’t attend games due to COVID-19.
The Green Bay cheerleaders were disbanded in 1988.
However, in 2007 the sidelines were again filled with cheers of Go Pack Go.
The team currently uses college cheerleading squads from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and St. Norbert College to rile the crowd of more than 70,000 as the cheerleading tradition carries on.