On Tuesday, September 27, an authentic Texas legend, Suzanne Mitchell, passed away at 73, following a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Mitchell was the director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders from 1976 to 1989, during which time the friskily attired group of 32 Texas women became international sex symbols as well as football’s foremost goodwill ambassadors.
Last year in May, I conducted what would be the final interview with Mitchell, by phone. She spoke to me for over an hour from her home in Fredericksburg after having made the decision not to undergo chemotherapy. Despite her illness, Mitchell was full of crisp memories characteristically feisty, particularly on the subject of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, of whom her opinion was not high. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
How she came to work for the Cowboys:
Well, my mom was a registered nurse and my father was a pilot for American Airlines for 38 years. He was also in World War II, a colonel, third in command under General Eisenhower in Africa. He was a very strict disciplinarian, which I gave to the girls. I got married for four years. My husband and I moved to New York. I worked in a publishing company, then in an advertising office. An agency got me this interview with [Cowboys general manager] Tex Schramm. I didn’t know who he was. I was a Jets fan–Joe Namath, loved him! I’m of the hippie age, and I went in to interview with him in a long skirt and sandals, hair down to my waist, and sat cross-legged across from him. He asked me what I wanted to be in five years. I said, “Well, your chair looks pretty comfortable.” He slammed his fist on the desk and he said, “You are hired.”
Mitchell became Schramm’s administrative assistant. But that soon changed after the Super Bowl in January 1976, when one of the team’s 14 cheerleaders—Gwenda Swearengin, a former Miss Corsicana—winked to the TV cameras, setting off an avalanche of inquiries.
Understand, Tex Schramm was the PT Barnum of football–he had an imagination that was just unbelievable. But this really struck his attention when we got back home and I started getting calls from talent agencies, movie producers, sponsorships. That’s when he called me in his office and offhandedly said, “Suzanne, someone needs to take care of this, why don’t you do this in your spare time.” And I stood there with my mouth open. I had absolutely no experience at this kind of thing, other than being on the drill team in high school.
Mitchell expanded the cheerleading outfit from 14 to 32 and presided over choreographer Texie Waterman, a trained Broadway dancer.
Texie really brought the dance to the football field. No other cheerleaders did this kind of thing. I kind of stayed out of her way and watched at the rehearsals how she operated. Later on when we got to [the former Cowboys training facility] Valley Ranch, they knew when Suzanne came in to rehearsal and saw some moves she didn’t like, like rolling around on the ground, I wasn’t going to have that. I wanted to keep it pure and sexy too.
That first year, Mitchell’s cheerleaders posed for a poster that would rival in popularity that of the iconic Farrah Fawcett pin-up. Overnight, thousands of Texas girls aspired to be Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
In the first round, we had anywhere from two to four thousand apply. That made me take a step back and say, “This is bigger than I thought.” There were girls who weighed 200 pounds. There were even men who auditioned. Texie and I weren’t just looking at them from a physical standpoint. Obviously they’d have to look good in a uniform—you didn’t’ want a girl with a huge stomach hanging over the belt. But I was looking for who the girl was inside. In the long term, I was really concerned with who these girls would be when the music stopped, how they would handle themselves in their private life.
They were 18 to 26 in age. Some of these girls came from God knows where—didn’t know how to hold a fork or cross their legs. Some of them were coming out of high school as homecoming queens, and their egos would get in the way. But now they were in a roomful of queens. It was like boot camp. Sometimes we’d be there until one in the morning. It was very hard on them, because they’d never been asked to give so much of themselves. I sent them to Dale Carnegie, which helped them immensely. And I would give them classes on how to deal with the press in terms of what not to answer, how to change the subject, the tricks of the trade. They weren’t ever allowed to hold alcoholic drinks in their hands when they wore the uniform. They weren’t allowed to perform or even make a personal appearance where alcohol was served. No smoking and chewing gum in public, either.
We had little rituals in the dressing room before the game. We’d lock pinkies and say the Lord’s Prayer. I’d go around and spray a little squirt of perfume on their throats. The perfume was called Hope.
In order to audition, they had to either be a full-time student, a wife and a mother or hold a full-time job. Money just had nothing to do with it. It was an honor to be a part of it and I wanted that always to be the goal. I paid the girls $15 per game. I mean, it wasn’t enough to pay for their pantyhose, for goodness sake. But that wasn’t the point.
Did I pick African American girls? Absolutely. No, it never entered my mind. The shame of it was that not many auditioned. I can’t tell you what the reason is. And then there were those that didn’t live up to what I wanted. But the ones that did were fabulous.
On average, they would stay two to three years. I became very close to them throughout the years. At the end of their first season, I’d give each girl a ring that said Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, with a bird of peace on it. It would hold them together as a sisterhood. I gave my ring away to one of my girls whose husband had flushed hers down the toilet. She came to live with me for six months with her two children.
Before long, Mitchell’s cheerleaders were among the most sought-after entertainers in America.
I didn’t have to go out and pursue anything. I was overwhelmed. I got a call from the William Morris Agency, and they wanted us to do the C&W Awards in Los Angeles. I took that to Tex and I said, “This is a good organization to be involved in, and Texie and I can control this.” So we did that. We did the Osmond Brothers special. But I was very careful of what we would do and how we would present ourselves. I was given a lot of grief by Bible Belters, by people who thought our uniform was risque. So I started pulling the girls in situations of orphanages, telethons, nursing homes. I thought that would enhance their image.
Over Christmas of 1979, we started the USO tours. They called and talked to Tex, said they have a morale problem and would the cheerleaders be available? I went on 18 USO events all over the world: nine in Korea, six in Indian Ocean, Iceland, Greenland, two tours of Beirut. You talk about fan mail from the boys. I had a jacket that weighed 14 pounds from the pins the boys pinned on me.
Nowadays, it’s about the bottom line with [Jerry] Jones. If you exist, you’re gonna bring in money.
Some fans became excessively enamored of Mitchell’s girls. Some of them wore Cowboys’ uniforms.
Do you know who [Cowboys linebacker] Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson is? He’d come to my office for something, and then he’d say, “Is this the girls’ phone numbers?” And I’d cover up the paper and say, “Thomas, get the hell out of this office.” They’d try to sweet-talk me into introducing them to a particular cheerleader they had their eye on. And I’d say, “It isn’t happening, get out of here.”
We opened all the fan letters before we gave them to the girls. One girl got a huge envelope full of knives and a letter saying what he would do to her. And I got a huge box full of these sadomasochistic ornaments and drawings of me in black leather tying the girls up and hanging them from a wall and whipping them. I told the FBI, and they found this guy up in Minnesota. He was an outpatient in a clinic that lived with his mom. We had strict rules in terms of security. I remember one time, I think in Atlanta, we did an open show and I had six girls with me and we went offstage for a break. And all of a sudden a guy comes out with a knife, trying to cut this girl’s beautiful hair off. I elbowed him in the throat and security took him off.
When Arkansas businessman Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989, he unceremoniously fired Schramm and Landry and hired Jimmy Johnson as the new head coach. Mitchell knew that her days were numbered.
I knew I’d be fired, because Jones was trying to get rid of everything that recalled Landry or Schramm. He and Jimmy Johnson and a bunch of their cronies came down when we were getting ready for the spring Department of Defense tour. They had drink in their hands, most of them drunk. Absolutely—like they were coming to a strip club and making themselves comfortable to watch. I told them to get the hell out, and they just laughed and left.
Let’s just say I informed Jones, “I’ll be leaving May 8,” and leave it at that. It’s memorialized in my mind, I’ll tell you that.
Mitchell worked a few other jobs, seldom paying attention to professional football. But she remained in touch with many of her former employees—all the more so once she was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.
I’ll tell you too, the beauty of having this cancer has been how this has brought them all together. I had over 500 cards when I got home from the hospital in Houston. They’ve come to see me. It’s just been overwhelming. It’s almost like this cancer’s been worth it.
I’m at peace. I’ve had such a blessed life. After the surgery, I made up my mind not to do the chemo and radiation therapy. Why the hell would I want to have mouth sores and throw up all the time? I decided to go to Florence, Italy instead. Just by myself. It’s just pure attitude. And it’s the reason why I’m still here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of a name. It’s Gwenda Swearengin, not Swearingen.