Grad student gives up NFL pom poms for pediatrics

USF and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more in common than a shared football stadium.

Sarah Nelson, a graduate student studying nursing, has spent two seasons as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders (TBBC).

We call each other our TBBC sisters because it really feels more like a sisterhood than friendships and teammates, she said. I went into this hoping to make some new friends and perform and get some community involvement, and I got all that, but also so much more.

Despite how much she said she has grown during her two seasons with the TBBC, this year shell be watching from the stands instead of the sidelines.

Nelson, who is studying to become a family nurse practitioner, will graduate in the spring and decided not to continue cheerleading after receiving an exciting job offer working for a maternal fetal medicine group that specializes in high-risk pregnancies.

When Nelson moved from Gainesville to Tampa in 2009, she said she didnt anticipate becoming a Buc as well as a Bull.

In summer 2009, she attended a TBBC practice session, which inspired her to try out for the team. Yet she was no shoe-in, she said.

About 200 to 300 girls arrived at the Sun Dome for first call. That group was narrowed down to about half, she said, and the next cut reduced the number of women to about 60 who got training camp invites. Nelson said the final 31-member team was selected from that group.

Those were probably some of the most physically challenging and mentally exhausting three weeks of my life, certainly, she said.

A pinnacle moment in Nelsons TBBC career came last season when the Bucs traveled to London for a regular season game between the Buccaneers and Chicago Bears, which she called TBBCs Superbowl.

Wembley Stadium was packed and huge, she said. And I just got chills up my spine when they said Welcome to Wembley Stadium on the loudspeaker.

Prior to the game, the TBBC spent a week in England, and Nelson said her favorite experience came when they drove outside London on the first day of their stay to some of the areas that were heavily affected by riots in 2011.

We volunteered at a school and the kids who we worked with were maybe third grade through high school, she said. We were able to take the cheerleading team through a cheerleading dance clinic in the afternoon, and then they got the opportunity to perform in front of their school for a pep rally we held for them.

As a Buccaneers cheerleader, Nelson worked with Cheerleading Manager Catherine Boyd and Cheerleading Coordinator Melissa Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald said she will not only miss Nelsons skill as a performer, but also the attitude she brought to the team.

She looks and portrays the glamour of an NFL cheerleader so well in a girl-next-door fashion, but the best part about Sarah is her sometimes-goofy attitude and her ability to always make you laugh, she said. She has the perfect blend of sarcasm that keeps rehearsals fun and full of laughs.

Belonging to the International Honor Society of Nurses and Sigma Beta Tau and boasting a 4.0 grade point average, Nelson has defined her life by more than cheerleading. She said her last B came as a freshman at the University of Florida.

Rasheeta Chandler taught Nelsons pediatric and adolescent health class and said Nelson distinguished herself among the 45 students in her class through her humility and eagerness to learn. Chandler said she saw Nelsons commitment when she requested to take a test early before her trip to London.

Usually I dont have any students who want to go and take the test earlier, Chandler said. Usually theyll ask if they can have a little more time. It was nice to have a student who was responsible and did things in advance.

As a Gator and a Bull, Nelson would not admit to leaning either blue and orange or green and gold, but said at UF she grew from childhood to young adulthood, and at USF she grew from a young adult to a working professional.

The University of Florida campus is much smaller, so I was very much immersed in the culture of the university my entire four years there, she said. Then, moving back to Tampa, I lived a little bit farther away from the campus at USF. And then (with) the graduate school component, I feel like my time spent at USF was more professional. I feel here Ive grown up a lot.

Though Nelson has currently decided to call it quits to focus on work, she said she wouldnt rule out returning to the TBBC once comfortable at her new job.

It really broke my heart to not try out again this year, Nelson said. I just knew that I at least needed that one year to get acclimated to the job and see if it would be possible or not possible (to do both). Fortunately, on the team I was surrounded by a lot of professional women who worked hard every day at work and then worked hard every single night at practice, and they were just an inspiration to know that it was possible.