“There is no greater feeling than winning, and there’s no greater feeling than confetti on your face,” says Athena Lazo, alumnus of MSC and now a two-year member of the New England Patriots cheerleaders.
After the Patriots won the AFC championship on Jan. 22, the squad will be cheering at this year’s NFL Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5.
In 2008 Lazo attended an open audition call to be a Patriot’s cheerleader. After eight cuts that included two weeks of boot camp, she said she was let go. She was crushed after working so hard and losing 40 pounds, but was not ready to give up. She auditioned again in 2010 after taking a year off to train and focus on school. She attended the University of Massachusetts and didn’t like it, so she transferred to Morrisville State College.
After auditioning again, Lazo was one of the eight women out of 383 who made the squad. She says being part of the team is a little stressful and takes up a majority of her life, but every second is worth it. She has found some lifelong friends on the squad, and when her body and mind want to give up, those other 30 “amazing” teammates keep her moving.
The team trains year-round and auditions are held between March and April. After the team is announced they prepare for their all-expenses-paid calendar shoot, which she says is usually in a tropical location. She says every woman on the squad will be featured in the calendar, unlike a lot of other squads. They practice twice a week, and depending on the time of year have to individually fulfill over 30 promotional appearances in the community.
Lazo says a fun fact is that the squad has had over 700 individual appearances since April 2011. All their training and dancing is to prepare for games. Since NFL cheerleaders don’t travel to away games they focus on the 10 home games. This season was longer, however, because they cheered for both playoff games at home. Including the Super Bowl, Lazo will have cheered 13 games this season.
On game day, Sunday, the squad will arrive at the Lucas Oil Stadium five to six hours early in order to practice before lunch and the game. Lazo says, while laughing, that her favorite part of game days, besides lunch, is the player tunnel. The squad lines up on the field and the players run through a large helmet onto the field. “It is such a rush. This year at the AFC Championship game, I stood there as the players ran through and fireworks shot off, and the crowd was going insane, and I started crying looking up at the sky,” she says. “This is my life? I am so blessed.”
There are things she says the team loves about being on the squad, and things they hate. There is a maximum of three years to be on the squad, and Lazo hopes to make her third year count. She says every year, current squad members still have to try out.
Lazo is excited to be able to cheer at the Super Bowl this year. At the AFC Championship, with fifteen seconds left on the clock, the kicker lined up for a 32-yarder. She closed her eyes. "I turned toward the field, closed my eyes, and began to pray to Myra Kraft. Is that weird? I swear that woman is our angel, and she has looked over every single person in this organization this year,” she says. She kept yelling ‘we are going to the Super Bowl, and still can’t believe it. She is anxious and has been preparing for the big game every day. Myra Kraft is the wife of Robert Kraft, The Patriots owner, who passed away from cancer in July of 2011.
Lazo doesn’t have a prediction and says the Giants have played well in the playoffs, but she backs up her Patriots 110 percent. “Football is the kind of sport where you only get one game to prove yourself,” she says. Lazo claims the team has worked so hard to get where they are and one penalty or missed kick can cost the whole season. She is excited to see the outcome of the game and will proudly wear her Patriots gear returning home, win or lose.
Being a Patriots cheerleader has taught Lazo to be more organized and prepared for any situation. She has become reliable on “bring lists” for trips and games. She finds herself being earlier for appointments and is more superstitious. She considers the other cheerleaders positive role models.
“I dream about where I will end up, and what the future holds, but I try to live for the moment,” Lazo says.
Besides cheering, Lazo loves writing and scrapbooking. Most of her free time is spent at the gym to keep her sane. If she wasn’t cheering for the Patriots she doesn’t know where she would be. She wants to move to Wilmington, N.C. when she is done with the team. She says she feels accomplished knowing she made it through the past two years on the team because the industry is tough. Driving about 1200 miles per week for practices before she graduated from MSC took a lot out of her.
Lazo grew up in Southbridge, Mass. with her mother, grandparents and brother. Her mother and grandparents always took care of her and her brother; although she grew up on welfare due to the absence of her father, she never went without. The apartments they lived in were always decorated nicely, and her birthday parties were always over the top. Renee Anctil, Lazo’s mother, said Athena’s father wasn’t really involved after they split up when Athena and her brother were young.
Lazo’s older brother, Dhosi, was diagnosed with a brainstem tumor at age three and had a life expectancy of five to nine years. He was expected to pass away at nine years old. The tumor was wrapped around his brainstem like tentacles, Lazo says. The doctors could not safely remove it with surgery, and “countless trips to the Children’s Hospital in Boston did nothing.” The family attended Disney World through the Make-a-Wish program to prepare for his death.
When they returned from Disney World, Lazo’s grandfather, “an extreme Christian,” placed a crucifix under Dhosi’s pillow in the hospital. Lazo says her grandfather told them he prayed for the Lord to save her brother’s life, and promised that if the Lord did this that he would never ask for anything again. Lazo said the brain tumor later miraculously disappeared. “You tell me how this happened. Doctors can’t explain it,” Lazo says. “Because of this event, my family is now inseparable.” Her big brother is alive and well to this day, and she has nothing but happy memories of her childhood.
Anctil says because of this miracle, Lazo and her brother are very close. She is very protective of him, adores him, and is happy he survived his illness. “One day on the school bus someone was picking on her brother and she went and gave that boy heck for it,” Anctil says.
Anctil was also a Patriots cheerleader in the ‘80s, and Lazo looked up to her and thought her mom was “the coolest.” Anctil says cheerleading now is similar to how it was when she was involved, but that there is more of a demand now when it comes to working out and training harder. She didn’t expect Lazo to follow in her footsteps; she says she was tickled by Lazo’s passion to want the same thing. Anctil says she didn’t force it on Lazo, but that Lazo has always wanted to dance and become a Patriots cheerleader.
Lazo says she used to try on her mom’s uniform when she was younger. She considers her mother her idol—not just because she cheered for the Patriots, but because she is the most kind-hearted, strong-willed person she has ever met. “I love her to death, I just lucked out that I got her beauty, brains and dance ability,” she says.
Anctil describes her daughter as an over-achiever, driven, someone who wants to do everything and wants to be the best she can be and never give up. She says anything Lazo does when it comes to performing, whether in school or out of school, have been her favorite memories of her. She says Lazo is not afraid to be unique or different; she is sensitive and sweet, but also very strong. “She shines. I know she is my kid, but if there were 100 other kids, I would still look at her because she stands out.” Anctil says. “She is perfect.”
Lazo says she is most passionate about love and feels that it’s the most complete and important emotion. She loves her family, her friends, what she does, and where she has been.
Lazo looks forward to relaxing since she has been on the go non-stop for two years. She hopes for one more year, but she wants to find what really makes her happy and settle down. The only thing she wants to do is slow down and enjoy life. She wants to read more, sleep more and focus on her work and career. “I barely have time to breathe, so I’m hoping the next few years will bring me some ‘me time,’” she says.
The Patriots cheerleading team was named as the number one cheerleading squad in the NFL by Darren Rovell, sports columnist for CNBC. The team is full of beauty and brains, says Lazo, and it includes doctors, accountants, Grammy nominated vocalists, scientists, dentists, and choreographers.