The first time I saw the picture of Danny White kissing a cheerleader, I thought it was fake. I was a few months into my Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders research, and though I had yet to become an expert, it didn’t take a doctorate to know one cardinal rule of the squad: No fraternizing with players.
The rule has been in place since at least 1972, when the Cowboys professionalized their squad and debuted its iconic uniform. That year, they replaced the plucky high school cheerleaders—who might have been told not to fraternize with players, though it’s not clear any players were ever that interested—with a bevy of gamely young women who would dance on the sidelines, not cheer.
The rule is something of a bummer, at least to this at-home viewer, who likes to envision the torrid backstage drama of handsome football players cavorting with glamorous cheerleaders, the way I like to imagine that Hollywood actors all date one another (and hey, sometimes they do). But the rule was strictly enforced, probably in an attempt to avoid distraction and scandal, not to mention the ire of players’ wives.
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Cheerleaders entered through a different part of the stadium than players, and often didn’t see them at all on game day, except how the rest of us do: on the field. The rule was so intense that cheerleaders were told to leave an establishment when a football player entered. Tami Barber, the seventies cheerleader with the pigtails, told me one of her small acts of rebellion was staying in a bar after Ed “Too Tall” Jones arrived. “I was there first,” she told me. But even that low-key civil disobedience is hardly the soapy fantasy that comes to mind when you think fraternization.
Even during the wild days of the nineties, whose hedonic spirit is captured but undersold by the title of a 2008 Jeff Pearlman book about that era, Boys Will Be Boys, the no-fraternization rule held. In 2009, the cheerleaders posed for a photo in Maxim with then-quarterback Tony Romo, but according to a cheerleader I spoke to, the cheerleaders were photoshopped to look like they were all in the same room, which is a very long way to walk to ensure no contact with a player—especially given the message the photo is sending, as cheerleaders in their sexy uniforms hover around Tony, who is seated at a desk with a grin that can only be described as shit-eating. Having studied the Cowboys for the better part of a year, all I can tell you about the internal philosophy and moral mindset of the Dallas Cowboys is that it’s just bizarre.
But I wanted to know where that Danny White photo came from, and so I showed it to Shannon Baker Werthmann, a golden girl of the seventies squad, thinking she’d laugh at this obvious forgery. Instead she said, “Oh, that’s Cynde Lewis. You can tell by the star in her hair.”
“Everybody wants to know about the kiss,” Cynde Lewis said, when I reached her by phone. Cynde lives in Bonham, where she tends to her thirty-acre ranch and owns a shaved ice stand. “It’s a big thing now, isn’t it?” she said of the photo, and giggled.
Cynde has a bubbly personality, the kind you might call naturally flirtatious. She grew up in the Dallas suburb of Richardson and was a cheerleader from sixth grade through college. She went to Brigham Young University (yes, she’s Mormon), and when she returned to Dallas, she heard an ad on the radio saying that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were holding auditions. That sounded fun.
It was 1976, the first year the Cowboys went all in on spreading the word about tryouts on the popular station KVIL; local news showed up to cover the event. Two hundred and fifty women showed up in hot pants and crop tops (per the Cowboys’ instructions) to compete for 36 spots, and one of the lucky chosen was Cynde Lewis. She didn’t really know what she was getting into, but she was struck by learning their duties would include promotions and appearances.
“They said people would want autographs,” she says. She couldn’t believe it. “People are gonna want my autograph!” Another giggle.
Cynde was barely 21 years old. She was already married, and had a six-week-old daughter when she auditioned. But the cheerleading experience was quite a ride. In 1977, she was one of five women chosen to pose in the Bob Shaw poster that became a bestseller. She’s standing just to the right of center with her sultry green eyes and the long twirling brown hair that reminds me of country singer Crystal Gayle. Cynde liked pulling up her long locks with a comb that had the shape of a star, a signature detail that made her recognizable in a sea of anonymously beautiful women.
She doesn’t remember much about the poster shoot, except that the cheerleader on the far left is someone who never cheered a game. Cynde didn’t even know her name. Often misidentified as Syndy Garza, the brunette cheerleader is actually named Kris Marullo, who never made it onto the field and disappeared from the squad not long after that photo was taken. What happened to her is one of those little Cowboys mysteries—a bit like that photo of Danny White kissing Cynde Lewis.
It was Super Bowl XII in New Orleans, the Dallas Cowboys versus the Denver Broncos, January 1978. That was the year sexy sideline dancers really captured the American imagination. The Dallas cheerleaders’ bestselling poster was only one part of the massive hype following them wherever they went, and other franchises had taken notice. By the fall of 1978, 22 teams had added eye-catching cheerleaders, including the Denver Broncos. Before the Super Bowl game, the Denver cheerleaders posed on the sidelines in their tiny sparkly sarongs and bikini tops, parading around the team’s mascot pony. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were not a part of this PR blitz.
“They took us underground and hid us,” says Debbie Kepley, a cheerleader who was on the squad at the time. (She talks about Super Bowl XII in episode three of America’s Girls.) “It was like, you can’t be seen until the game.” Director Suzanne Mitchell wanted the cheerleaders to make a big debut when they took the field, so they were squirreled away like brides awaiting their walk down the aisle.
The cheerleaders were treated like celebrities and replaceable cogs at once. They were not getting paid anything for that game, not even their usual $15. The cost of their flight to New Orleans had been footed by a sponsor, since the Cowboys wouldn’t pay (a long tradition). Suzanne Mitchell was keeping a tight rein on those cheerleaders in the city of sin, which meant whisking them in and out of town on the same day, though their plane would later get stuck on the tarmac as the Cowboys celebrated with a big bash that included Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. ”Dallas may hold the record for penury by bringing their girls to New Orleans a few hours before the Super Bowl and sending them right home afterward on the pretext that there had been no hotel rooms available,” wrote Bruce Newman in Sports Illustrated later that year. But on the field, at least for a moment—they were stars.
“That’s when you see the impact of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders,” says historian Frank Guridy, a professor at Columbia University who wrote about that Super Bowl game in his book, The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics. The televised game, seen by 100 million people, was generous with cutaway shots to both cheerleader squads. “Tom Brookshier and Pat Summerall, who were calling that telecast, say, ‘Oh, this is a battle of the cheerleaders as much as it is of the players on the sideline,’” Guridy told me.
The Cowboys won the game. It was their second time to win the Super Bowl, and the field was chaos. One cheerleader told me Roger Staubach picked her up in a bear hug, yelling, “Cheerleaders!” Meanwhile, on another part of the AstroTurf, Danny White swept up Cynde Lewis. Cynde remembers the cameras clicking around her. Uh-oh.
“Danny and I were good friends,” Cynde tells me. A group of them went to dinner from time to time. Although such socializing was against the no-fraternization rule, 1977 was a time of relative freedom on the squad, when Suzanne Mitchell had taken over as director but had yet to fully exert her authority. She was busy in her actual job as executive assistant to general manager Tex Schramm.
If you were going to travel back in time and be a cheerleader, I would suggest 1976 or 1977, because the squad’s popularity and glamour were nearing their peak, but the women were not yet under the thumb of the rules and regulations. The Cowboys players were not the untouchable multimillionaires they would become, and often lived in the same Irving apartment complex as the cheerleaders. These were young, beautiful people, enjoying a hot streak that would soon nab them the nickname “America’s Team.” Of course they fraternized. Of course they did other things. And though Captain America himself, Roger Staubach, had a Boy Scout image, his backup quarterback Danny White—not so much. Danny White was married to a woman named JoLynn, and the two of them would have four children, but in the 1991 memoir Deep in the Heart of Texas, cheerleader Stephanie Scholz remembers Danny White as a flirt. He came up behind her during an appearance on Family Feud, wrapping his arms around her, and whispering in her ear, “Don’t you know that dynamite comes in small packages.” (I tried to reach Danny White for this story, but never got a response.)
Cynde Lewis remembers her own kiss as innocent. “It looks worse than it is,” she said. “It looks like we’re tonguing! It was just a little peck.”
But cameras have a way of freezing time, and what those photographers captured was something as unprecedented as it was irresistible: a Super Bowl champion locking lips with a gorgeous cheerleader, both of them married to other people. The image calls to mind the sweeping shot of a sailor in Times Square kissing a nurse after news of Japan’s surrender in 1945, although that shot became controversial in a consent era, when it was discovered the woman in question didn’t have much choice in the matter.
The photo of Danny White and Cynde Lewis was a gold mine, clear front-page fodder—but the photo didn’t run the next day, or the next week. The photo didn’t run for more than two decades.
After she got off the field, Cynde went immediately to director Suzanne Mitchell. She remembers telling her, “Danny kissed me, and there were a lot of pictures, just letting you know.” Suzanne was their den mother, and she ruled by fear. “I think she implanted little people on our shoulders,” Cynde says. “We had to be very, very careful. But she built respect in us. We watched what we did.”
I can’t know what happened next, in part because the primary actors in the backstage drama have died, but my guess would be that someone high in the Cowboys organization made sure that photo didn’t run. Double-triple sure. Whatever America’s Team represented—apple pie, shining virtue, triumph over circumstance—it wasn’t this. A married football player kissing a married cheerleader.
“Tom Landry was very adamant that players and cheerleaders don’t mix,” Cynde told me. Coach Landry was a devout Christian, and he wasn’t such a fan of the cheerleaders, whom he allegedly once called “porno queens.” But the cheerleaders were beloved by general manager Tex Schramm, who was central to their inception. Schramm was a different character from Landry. A P.T. Barnum type who helped shape modern sports, Schramm had a nose for spectacle, and beautiful women. I never heard rumors of anything untoward with the cheerleaders, but Schramm was known to get around. According to a story told by sports reporter Dale Hansen in Joe Nick Patoski’s book on the Dallas Cowboys, owner Bum Bright once complained that “Tex Schramm spent more of my money buying goddamn houses for his girlfriends.” The contradictions of sinner and saint embodied by the cheerleaders were very much present in the team’s top tier.
It’s impossible to imagine such a high-profile shot, taken by so many photographers at once, not leaking to the public in the age of iPhones—but such was the tight grip the Cowboys had on media back then. Schramm had been a journalism major at the University of Texas, and went on to work at CBS Sports before landing the Cowboys gig, and he understood how to play the game. I don’t mean football, although that too. I mean showbiz.
So the photo was quashed, and everyone quietly went about their business, with the team’s stellar reputation intact. Nobody saw that photo—until 25 years later, when it showed up in People magazine.
“Full page,” says Cynde. “They did a story about the cheerleaders, and there’s a picture of me and Danny. That’s the first time it came out.”
Cynde was in her forties by then. She was still married to her husband. They had two daughters and a son, although he was hit by a truck and killed at the age of twelve. Danny White was still married too, and remained so until his wife JoLynn died in 2016. He later remarried.
In the decades that followed that kiss, there would be other hush-hush scandals thanks to the no-fraternization policy. Several cheerleaders have been kicked off the squad for it, but most are lost to history. Cheerleaders I spoke with often couldn’t remember their names, and weren’t sure of the details, since announcements were never made. The women just disappeared, secreted out the door while no one was looking, subject to whispers and speculation. A few cheerleaders told me that certain football players were well known to sniff around the cheerleaders, approaching their cars in the parking lot or sauntering up to them on the field, but the rules were no joke, and most people didn’t break them. It’s incredibly hard to make that cheerleading squad, and for most of the women, the risk wasn’t worth it.
For a few, it was. In 1991, a calendar cover girl named Carrie Blanke left the squad to date star quarterback Troy Aikman, and they stayed together for a year, a juicy bit of red meat that somehow never made it to the press, despite constant scrutiny on Aikman. Many years later, in 2012, a post-divorce Aikman would be captured by TMZ exiting a restaurant with cheerleader Abigail Klein, though both swore they were “just friends.” In 2018, former Cowboys safety Jeff Heath married former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Paige Cavalieri, and an Internet sleuth ran the numbers to prove that they had started dating while both were with the team, though that part of their love story has been kept under the radar. In 2017, star cheerleader Holly Powell quit the team after director Kelli Finglass, who took over in 1991, learned that she and her teammate Jenna Jackson had been seen out with players, a confrontation captured on season twelve of the reality show Making the Team.
Jackson lost her spot as the star of the triangle, the top seed for cheerleaders, but she was not kicked off. Although the no-fraternization rule is no joke, its enforcement is also at management’s whim. (I reached out to all of these cheerleaders, who did not respond to requests, except for one, whose story I’m keeping for a later date. Troy Aikman, not surprisingly, passed on an interview.)
As for Cynde Lewis, she never had any repercussions from her collision with pop-culture history. She laughs about that picture now. But I had one final question that had slipped my mind when we spoke, so I asked her by text: What did her husband think?
“Haha he doesn’t think anything of it,” she responded. “It looks so different from what it was.”
In fact, her husband often shows people that famous shot when he’s sharing the many images of his wife from her pro cheerleading days. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime picture,” Cynde told me. “I’ve never talked to Danny about it. I guess I should.”