Oz, the cheerleader

BY BEN ROSS | MARCH 04, 2014 5:00 AM

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Oz Agbese kept his cool while the Iowa State student section peppered him with racial slurs. The 5-10, 220-pound Iowa cheerleader with biceps as big as grapefruits lifted one of the I-O-W-A banners as he had dozens of times before and went on to cheer the Iowa football team to a 27-21 victory over the Cyclones in Ames.

“That’s the only time I’ve ever …” Agbese paused. “It was so shocking to me because I had been on the team for 3½ years at this point, and then someone said something to me that one time. It took me aback because I had never experienced something like that.”

Agbese said he wanted to match the epithets hurled at him with his own anger directed toward the Iowa State students, but he stayed calm, not wanting to become famous on social media for the wrong reasons.

The self-restraint Oz (short for Onazi) displayed in Ames paid off: He has since gone viral over the Internet thanks to the enthusiasm he showcases at Iowa sporting events.

When then-No. 7 ranked Michigan State traveled to Iowa City on Jan. 28 to take on the Hawkeyes, people saw it as the most anticipated Iowa basketball game since it last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2006. After Iowa center Adam Woodbury netted his team’s first score of the eventual 71-69 loss in overtime, Oz went nuts.

He flapped his massive arms, punched the air, and let out what must have been one of the loudest screams heard in Carver-Hawkeye that day. Almost like a cartoon, Oz’s jaw appeared to unhinge, doubling its circumference to allow for optimal bellows. ESPN’s cameras were focused on Oz the whole time, catapulting him to a level of fame he said he could never imagine.

“I had friends post the [videos] on my Facebook wall, email and tweet them to me,” he said. “I kind of laughed; I react in a big way every time there’s a big play. My teammates didn’t act that shocked; they know that’s how I am. It hasn’t changed the way I react; I try to cheer the Hawks on to the best of my ability.”

Similar videos, or “GIFs,” as they’re called on the Internet, have since appeared of Oz cheering on Iowa. When you Google “Iowa Cheerleader,” four of the 10 items that pop up on the first page are videos or GIFs of Oz. When you Google “Iowa Cheerleader GIF,” eight of the 10 links are Oz-related.

The Iowa men’s basketball team and its fans aren’t the only ones reaping rewards from Oz’s enthusiasm, either. Gregg Niemiec, Iowa’s head cheerleading coach, said that he’s helping kick negative stereotypes of male cheerleaders, which could lead to greater interest in the its future.

“It’s helped out not just Iowa cheerleading but male cheerleading,” Niemiec said. “People are excited to cheer on the team … and Oz is helping bring them to national attention … You see Oz throw a girl and catch her with one hand — you have to put all stereotypes away because that’s as athletic you can get.”

In a way, Agbese is the ultimate cheerleader, standing at the forefront of student sections and motivating them to yell out for the Black and Gold. He takes it personally when people don’t show up to support Iowa athletics. He was a little tiffed that a lack of support made it difficult for him to do his job at the Iowa women’s basketball game on Feb. 10 against Northwestern.

“I wish there were more students there,” he said. “There are hardly any students there, which is kind of strange to me, because they’re successful. Schools like Iowa State also have a successful women’s team, and they have an actual student section that shows up to the women’s games. We have similar success, but we don’t get the student response.”

On this particular night, Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder notched her 270th win at the helm of the Iowa program, passing Vivian Stringer and Tom Davis as the basketball coach with the most wins in Iowa history.

“I am beyond disappointed with the student body today a great team and an incredible coaching staff reached a remarkable milestone tonight,” read a tweet posted from Agbese’s Twitter account following Iowa’s win that night.

Agbese started cheerleading during his sophomore year of school, and he has cheered for a countless number of football, volleyball, and basketball events, let alone cheerleading competitions during that time. His father was born in Nigeria and his mother, Jamaica; Oz is the only black member of Iowa’s cheerleading squad. He said the encounter in Ames this past football season was the only time where the color of his skin came into play.

Niemiec also said that’s the only instance when he’s seen any type of racial attack on a cheerleader in his 18 years of coaching the sport at Iowa, saying homosexual slurs towards male cheerleaders are much more prevalent. The team filed a grievance report with Iowa State administration following the incident; it is still waiting for a response.

Agbese said he has put the event behind him and is just focused on cheering for Iowa; his calendar was circled for when then-No. 16 Wisconsin came to Iowa City on Feb. 22. The basketball team has since undergone a dip in its performance on the court, but Agbese is still determined to lead Iowa’s born-again student section in cheering on the Black and Gold. But with great success for Iowa basketball players comes some encumberance for Iowa cheerleaders.

“The responsibility is higher, And not just with the cheers, but during time-outs on the floor it adds more pressure, the more eyes are on you, the more you want to do well,” Agbese said. “You want applause, you want everything to go well. It’s hard to get the crowd excited if they’re holding their breath, thinking a girl is going to fall on the ground …

“When the crowd is better, the team is better. How can you not feel energy when 15,000 people are screaming, ‘Let’s go Hawks,’ when you’re the Hawks?”

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