Big-time Dreams

Michelle Jones has had plenty of reasons to smile.

It was two years ago Jones was featured in the WTO for becoming an NFL cheerleader for the Arizona Cardinals. Her story was one of perseverance; trying out twice for the Cardinals without making the squad.

Two years later, the Warren-native, who learned to dance through the Linda Dies Dance Express Company, is jumping for joy.

“I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Jones, 27, daughter of Ray and Kathy Jones, formerly of Warren. “(I) thought it was all about the dancing and performing at games and that is only a fraction of it. We sign contracts and are held accountable. We practice for hours and hours in 115-degree heat. We go through training on how to be a cheerleader, interact with fans and speak to media. I was completely shocked at how the fans treat you like a celebrity. They want your pictures and autographs and get so excited; I never got used to that. My first NFL game was actually my first game down on the field. I have never been so scared before in my life. The energy on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium is indescribable. There are so many times I think about where I came from and it is hard to believe I got to live out my dream. I still pinch myself but I know how blessed I am.”

While Jones is no longer a Cardinals cheerleader, she is still in the spotlight. In April she was among five cheerleaders on the team that had a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated.

“I have a great relationship with the Cardinals,” said Jones. “Being a Cardinals Cheerleader Alumni is still pretty cool. I was a cheerleader for two seasons. We did the photo shoot in April when I was still on the team. Being a cheerleader is a demanding job. We are actually employees of the Cardinals organization and it is way more then just game day. I am also a medical device rep, which is also a demanding job. I was promoted in January and I am at a place where I want to focus on my career. It was such a hard decision, but my coach was very understanding. I will be helping out this season with game day and other events.”

In the meantime, she was featured as a Sports Illustrated Cheerleader of the Week. You can read about how her favorite TV show is The Office, how her favorite Twitter followers are her own family, how she wants to see a Great White shark up close, and more about her personality.

“In April, Sports Illustrated selected five girls from each NFL team to be nominated for the year,” said Jones. “I did a long photo shoot with the four girls on my team. This shoot was done in our uniforms at Bruce Yeung’s studio. He is the Sports Illustrated photographer. We had a blast! Then when I found out I was chosen, I did a shoot with Bruce by myself. We shot in the morning at a football field and it was about 105 degrees out. I was so hot! The feature turned out really awesome and I absolutely love it!”

The distinction was a culmination of two years of living a dream.

“I did a USO tour at Fort Lewis in Washington with a few of the girls on my team,” said Jones. “We got to tour the base, sit in helicopters, wear firefighter gear, shoot guns and hang with the soldiers and their families. It was an eye opening experience to get to know them and see the sacrifice, first hand, that they make every day for our freedom. I was blown away at how young these men and women are. It made me very thankful and have a new respect for our troops.

“Seeing how proud I made my parents and family,” she added. “I remember the first fan fest when the squad was introduced and seeing how proud my parents were was a great feeling because they have supported this dream since day one. Also, being down on the field and waving to them in the stands at every game was really cool. I also had family come from all over and watch me. I remember when we played the Steelers last year and Kim and Eric Corey and my grandma and grandpa Kelly came. Everyone was decked out from head to toe in Steelers geer taking pictures with me in my uniform. The security guards and my teammates looked confused. It was also a special game because my grandpa Kelly got to see me before he passed away.

“Our appearances at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Ronald McDonald House impacted my life in so many ways. I have been around sick adults but never children who are just fighting to live every day. Getting to know these families, their stories, and understanding their optimistic outlook on life is an invaluable gift I have been blessed with. My perspective on life has been changed because of this experience.

“I also went to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii with a group of girls on my team. We went to support our cheerleader and be a part of the festivities. Hawaii was absolutely beautiful and we had so much fun.”

The experience will forever be part of her life, and captured in Sports Illustrated.

“It was a lot of work, but I learned that early on from being a member of Dance Express,” said Jones. “We competed against dancers from all over and held our own. Linda and Molly Dies run a program that is at the same level, if not higher, than the companies from big cities. I had a back injury and taken a few years off from dancing and getting the confidence and technique back took years. I auditioned for the Cardinals twice. The first time I was cut early on in the audition process and the second I made it to the finale 40. It completely crushed me when I got cut, but I was determined to make this team. I emailed the coach, and came back as prepared as I could be. Even on the team, I struggled in the beginning. I hadn’t been dancing like that in a few years and getting the confidence back was tough. I think overcoming all of this just shows that I am a very determined person. If I set a goal for myself, I will do what it takes to achieve my goals. I am not afraid of failing or being rejected; it only makes me stronger. Being a Cardinals cheerleader was so much more than what I was expecting. It changed my life.”

You can see the gallery at sportsillustrated.cnn.com/cheerleaders/photos/1307/cheerleader-of-the-week-michelle/.