Written by Brad Townsend
Meet the 335-pound Dallas football player who plays cheerleader for half the game (and he can, sing, too)
While the Episcopal School of Dallas football Eagles toiled under the afternoon sun, 6-foot-3, 335-pound nose tackle Armand Fernandez-Pierre intently trained near the north end zone with his other team.
The cheer squad.
Seriously, 17-year-old senior Fernandez-Pierre is a football player/cheerleader and wholeheartedly dedicated to both pursuits.
When the Eagles face Brock on Friday night at ESD’s Gene and Jerry Jones Family Stadium, Fernandez-Pierre will divide his time shedding blockers, bellowing into his megaphone, smothering ball-carriers and tossing and catching female Eagles cheerleaders.
“I am really loud, trust me,” Fernandez-Pierre said of his cheering ability. “And I’m also one of the nicest, upbeat guys in our school.
“But when it comes to football, I’m a scary guy to mess with.”
He began his unusual if not unprecedented dual role last Friday, with little fanfare. But when local Fox affiliate KDFW-TV (Channel 4) aired footage Tuesday night of Fernandez-Pierre tackling and cheering during ESD’s 41-7 victory over John Paul II, the video went viral.
Wednesday morning, Eagles football coach Clayton Sanders sought Fernandez-Pierre in the student dining area to show him an email he’d just received. It was from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, requesting video on this massive tackle who also can perform cartwheels.
Never mind that Fernandez-Pierre played little more than two quarters against John Paul II and that it was his first organized football game since eighth grade.
“It was really cool,” Fernandez-Pierre said of Kelly’s email. “I almost dropped my breakfast taco.”
He already was well-known at ESD among the college preparatory school’s 1,100 students (age 3 through 12th grade) and their parents, but now he’s a national celebrity. ABC came to the North Dallas campus Thursday to feature Fernandez-Pierre on World News With Diane Sawyer.
The cheerleader/football player peg, though, is only part of the story.
An eighth-grade football practice collision broke his neck and partially severed his spinal cord, leaving him hemiplegic for 10 months, paralyzed on the right side of his body.
He had spinal surgery. His single-parent mother, Cencelia Pierre, had to quit work to care for him. While the ESD community rallied around the Pierres, Armand was particularly inspired during his rehabilitation by Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
Figuring his athletic career was over, Armand focused on passions such as choir, theater, the Robotic Club and working as a student trainer. As a sophomore he wanted to be part of the Friday night excitement, so he became the mascot, donning yellow tights and an oversized eagle head.
He became a cheerleader as a junior but promised new football coach Sanders he’d consider playing as a senior.
This summer, doctors cleared him to play, assuring that he has no more risk of injury than any other player. He’s been such a dominant force in two scrimmages and half of a game that 10 colleges have expressed interest in him.
Though football might be his best path to a scholarship, Fernandez-Pierre is adamant that he remain on the cheer squad. Each week, Sanders and ESD cheer coach Eric Labao will actually game plan how to use Fernandez-Pierre’s talents.
“When he steps on the football field, he’s a football player,” Sanders said. “When he steps off the field and goes to the cheer squad, he’s a cheerleader.
“When he goes to theater arts, he’s an actor. When he goes to choir, he’s a singer. I’ve never seen a kid be able to switch so many switches on and off when it’s showtime. He’s an amazing young man.”
Spirit a strength
A high school student juggling extracurricular activities isn’t unusual. There have been cases of football players performing with their school band at halftime.
Girls have played varsity football, some of them cheerleaders, prom queens or both.
It’s unclear whether Fernandez-Pierre playing and cheerleading in the same game is a first for a boy, but the mere sight of a 335-pounder doing both certainly is unusual.
Fernandez-Pierre is the only boy among ESD’s 21 varsity cheerleaders. Labao, in his 10th year as cheer coach, said he believes Fernandez-Pierre is the first male cheerleader in the school’s 30-year-plus history.
ESD doesn’t have a band, so Eagle cheerleaders provide the halftime entertainment, learning a new routine each week. During the John Paul II game, Fernandez-Pierre left with four minutes to go in the second quarter to change into his cheer shirt (though he kept on his football leg pads) and rehearse for halftime.
“His strength is actually his spirit, his passion for the school, the ambassador role he plays,” said Labao, adding that Fernandez-Pierre is helping to dispel “the misunderstanding of male cheerleaders.”
“The fact that he plays football gives him the sense of masculinity and brutality, but it also shows he can be agile, flexible and learn choreography and dance. A lot of pro football players of his size actually take those classes, but he’s been blessed with those gifts from the beginning.”
ESD cheerleader co-captains Shelby Conine and Caroline Oden said Fernandez-Pierre admittedly was tired when he joined them before halftime but told the girls, “I want to do this for y’all.”
“We love Armand,” Oden said. “He’s always been such a team player and an amazing athlete but an even more amazing person. He’s like a big brother to us. We love that people are recognizing that.”
During Thursday’s football pep rally, Fernandez-Pierre stood with his football teammates, then joined the cheerleaders for the fight song and a short routine.
Even his practices are divided. He typically warms up with the football team, works with fellow defensive linemen for an hour, then spends an hour training with the cheer squad.
Fernandez-Pierre said he knows he is a target for teasing, especially by opponents. How wise, though, would it be to trash-talk someone who can squat 650 pounds, dead-lift 560 and bench 325?
“I’m a very positive person,” Fernandez-Pierre said. “I’ve learned to let things roll off my shoulders. If a couple of people have negative things to say, everybody’s allowed to have their opinions.”
He says football and cheerleading require different personalities, but he stresses that he enjoys the physicality of football. During an interview with The Dallas Morning News, the only time he frowned was when it was mentioned that unlike football, cheer is not a contact activity.
“Cheerleading is a very physical sport,” he said. “I’m as physical in cheerleading as I am in football. You could say it’s not really a contact sport; it’s more of what you could call endurance.
“It’s more of, ‘Hey, I have to pick up a 110-pound girl and throw her over my head and catch her at the top — and then be able to cradle her [one hand under the back, the other under the thigh] and then be able to go do six jumps and maybe some tumbling.’”
Opponents might smirk at such a comment, but ESD senior linebacker Jack Mikeska said the Eagle defense’s “vibe” is far different when Fernandez-Pierre is in the game.
“He’s always making plays and he always has a smile on his face, even after a brutal hit,” Mikeska said. “If anything, having him on both teams [football and cheer] can really throw our opponent off because they are mentally preparing for Armand, but they don’t know when we’re going to put him out there.”
When Sanders became head coach last season, only 28 players were in the program.
During lunch on the first day of school, Sanders went to the cafeteria to find prospects. Naturally, he beelined for Fernandez-Pierre, who looked the coach in the eyes and gave a vise-grip handshake.
Fernandez-Pierre told Sanders what happened to him as an ESD eighth-grader. He had lowered his head to make a tackle in practice.
“It was horrific,” Cencelia Pierre recalled. “Doctors said they didn’t think he would walk again.”
Armand was born in Whittier, Calif. When he was 1, Cencelia moved them to Dallas to live near her ailing mother.
Cencelia now has her own accounting practice and is a visiting scholar at Mountain View College while working on a Ph.D. in accounting, but she said raising Armand as a single mother has been financially challenging.
Cencelia saw to it that he was parochially educated, first at East Dallas Community School, then St. Philip’s, then ESD starting in seventh grade. They live in a house in Allen, with Armand helping make ends meet by working on the Geek Squad at Best Buy.
“When he told me he wanted to play football again in his senior year, I was not very enthusiastic about it,” she said with a laugh. “As a matter of fact, I said, ‘Hell, no.’”
Two years after his eighth-grade accident, doctors had told Armand that his spine and neck were healed and that he could resume normal physical activity. Cencelia had hoped doctors wouldn’t clear him to play football.
Armand hadn’t forgotten the words of the Cowboys’ Ratliff, whom he’d met while they rehabbed at the same sports medicine facility.
“He told me that I should always strive for what I want. He was one of those factors that pushed me to keep going to get out of the wheelchair. It’s one of those factors that’s always in the back of my mind about moving forward in my senior year.”
One thing mother and son agreed upon was that football was a way for Armand to give back to the school. During his rehab, ESD students had taken class notes for him and parents had brought meals. One parent from the St. Philip’s days had even paid Armand’s eighth-grade tuition.
“Even though I’m not fully on board with it because of my personal fears, I want to support him as a parent, especially a single parent,” Cencelia said.
“And I really believe it takes a village to raise a child. It’s so important that parents and educators have strong bonds and relationships. I think that results in a productive, responsible and relatively happy member of society.”
If there were doubts that Armand the cheerleader could re-adapt to football, they were dispelled during the first drill on the first day of August practice.
Punishing the sled
Fernandez-Pierre, wearing only shorts, T-shirt and helmet, lined up with four teammates across from a 2,000-pound blocking sled. Three coaches stood atop the sled.
When the whistle blew, Fernandez-Pierre shot forward, snapping off the sled dummy. His teammates cheered.
“After we fixed the sled, Armand was lined up on the far right,” Sanders said. “The whistle blew, and he basically was pushing the sled around in circles, the coaches hanging on for dear life.
“That’s when we knew we had something special.”
After ESD’s two preseason scrimmages, Miami, North Carolina, UCLA and several other schools asked for video of Fernandez-Pierre and began keeping tabs on him.
One week into the season, he’s making national news. He sees his sudden celebrity as a positive.
“To me, it’s a bit of a miracle,” he said. “Because I’m not supposed to be walking, let alone being allowed to do the things I enjoy, like dancing and doing cheer and theater and choir and things like that.
“I’m glad that people find what I do as an encouragement for them to always know that they can do what they want to do.”