It was late in a listless Eagles exhibition game on the cool and cloudy night of Aug. 23, 1984. In Veterans Stadium’s notorious 700 Level, the blood-alcohol level was as elevated as the vantage point.
The home team, 5-11 the previous year, was displaying little improvement. Rowdy and restless, fans booed lustily after Philadelphia rookie Evan Cooper’s fumble, after two Ron Jaworski interceptions, after backup QB Joe Pisarcik was sacked twice.
So when the giant PhanaVision screen suddenly flashed the image of two men in skimpy shorts and sleeveless, satin T-shirts, the crowd’s reaction was as predictable as the 6-9-1 Eagles season that was to follow.
“There was even something new to boo this year,” The Inquirer’s Jere Longman noted in his story on the Eagles’ 20-19 victory over the Browns, “male cheerleaders.”
Time, attitudes, and stadiums have changed. When the Eagles open their 2019 season, the debut of Kyle Tanguay, their first male cheerleader since then, figures to pass with little note.
But 35 years ago, that first bracing glimpse of Paul Kramer and Mark Merschen, who that year joined 30 female counterparts on the Eagles’ Liberty Belles, drew a decidedly negative response.
“I think it was an idea before its time,” Merschen said recently.
Other NFL teams had employed male cheerleaders. The Eagles weren’t trying to foster social change when they did so and, according to some accounts, were so shaken by the Vet reception that they briefly considered shelving the experiment.
Whatever triggered the crowd’s reaction, it was soon forgotten, and Kramer and Merschen — with a significant uniform adjustment — endured the entire 1984 season, performing at all eight regular-season home games and at public and charitable events throughout the area.
A year later, Norman Braman bought the team from Leonard Tose. The Eagles’ cheerleading program was revamped, and Kramer and Merschen faded away.
Kramer moved to New York City, where he taught in the public school system for many years. He died at 57 in 2012. Merschen was a professional roller skater when he tried out on a whim. He is 59 and single and works at Philadelphia International Airport as a fleet-service agent for American Airlines.
Their role in franchise history was nearly forgotten until the Eagles’ May 1 hiring of Tanguay. When Kramer’s sister heard the news, she was annoyed that the Eagles had labeled the University of the Arts dance major their first male cheerleader.
“I reached out to the Eagles, to media relations and the cheerleaders,” Terri Kramer-Mebert said. “Nobody contacted me. Finally, I sent Kyle a message about my brother.”
Kramer grew up in Wallingford, one of five children of a Westinghouse engineer and his teacher wife. He would go on to earn a master’s in education from Fordham, but at the time was working with special-needs children in a Delaware County day care that his mother started. In the spring of 1984, on a dare, he responded to an ad about an Eagles cheerleader tryout.
“He loved to dance,” Kramer-Mebert recalled. “We all took dance classes growing up. When we were clearing out my parents’ house, we found all these old top hats and tap shoes. Anyway, he made the first cut and he got excited about it, so he continued. It was tough, but he eventually got picked.”
That same spring, Merschen, of Maple Glen, happened to be at JFK Stadium preparing for a roller-skating show. When rain postponed it, he and a fellow performer decided to walk across Pattison Avenue to the Vet, where they knew the Eagles were auditioning cheerleaders.
“There was a woman in charge, and I asked her if it was open to guys,” Merschen said. “She said, 'Sure, why not?’ So we just did some of our skating routines without skates. My friend, Tony, got cut, but I made it.”
Initially, a few of the Belles were cool to their new male teammates but very soon, according to Sharon Sweeney, then their choreographer, “all the girls loved them.”
Unlike the women, Kramer and Merschen didn’t have to carry pom-poms. And once they got past their trying debut, they abandoned the shorts — basically the same as the women were wearing — and donned Kelly green sweatpants.
“But those two guys did everything that the girls did,” recalled Sweeney, who operates an Irish-themed gift shop in Phoenixville. “They were in the Thanksgiving Parade with us. They were at all the games and went to the softball games and supermarket openings.”
Neither Merschen nor Sweeney remembers much booing at their debut, but there apparently was enough to make the Eagles reconsider their decision.
“These guys are great,” Sherry Lewis, the Eagles’ cheerleading administrator, told the Daily News a few days later. “But if the reaction is more negative than positive, then that will be that.”
Kramer-Mebert was at the game and hasn’t forgotten the reaction of the preseason crowd of 40,030 to the two men.
“There were a lot of jeers,” she said. “The people sitting behind me were carrying on and calling them names. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore and I stood up and said, 'That’s my brother.’ I was proud of him. I stared at them all and sat down. Later, I turned around and they were gone.
“Later, I asked Paul how it felt to hear all those comments and the boos,” she said. "I remember he said, `I can handle it because when we leave that stadium at night, what the girls have to hear from the people standing at the entrance is 10 times worse.’
“He was very proud of being an Eagles cheerleader. He crossed a barrier.”
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