Maddy Brum and James Thomas gained overnight stardom in Netflix’s Emmy award-winning docuseries “Cheer,” but they recently traded their Navarro uniforms for scarlet and black.
It's a day in late September and I've arranged to meet the new Red Raiders for a drink at J&B Coffee, a local favorite. We order iced coffees since September in West Texas is a scorcher.
I've seen both seasons of “Cheer” on Netflix. Not a cheerleading enthusiast myself, I do enjoy great storytelling and the docuseries certainly tells an engaging narrative with characters who are loveable, scandalous and a bit of everything in between.
Plus, it's hard to look away when someone is tossed like a pretzel 15-feet in the air.
James and Maddy are now cheering at Texas Tech University with the Texas Tech Spirit Program and are students in the College of Media & Communication. Their transition to a new school this semester was anything but usual though. The friends were touring with “Cheer Live 2022” this summer, so the fall semester snuck up quickly.
"We weren't sure what to expect once we got here, because most of the Texas Tech cheer squad had spent time together over the summer and even had a camp together, and we missed all that,” James said.
The two worried that their absence might create a tough transition, but the Texas Tech squad welcomed James and Maddy with open arms.
“They've been incredible,” Maddy said. “This team feels like home.”
There have been more changes than just a new team, though. For Maddy, she's excited to finally attend college classes in-person. Since she began attending Navarro Community College right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she's mostly taken online classes.
“Sitting in a classroom with hundreds of other students wanting to learn the same things I'm interested in has been pretty cool,” she said.
The two friends also have had to adjust to being on a large university campus.
“All of Navarro is about the size of the science quad at Texas Tech,” James said. “So, coming to a school of this size was a bit of a shock, but in a good way.”
The largest difference, however, has been football games. Cheering at Navarro, James and Maddy would attend football games played on high school fields with perhaps 50 people in the stands.
The first time they walked into Jones AT&T Stadium, they knew this was a different ball game, so to speak.
“During the first football game of the season, we got on the field and were like ‘Oh, so this is college game day,'” Maddy said.
Outside of cheer, James and Maddy finally have time to look at their future careers and balance cheer with being college students. The two say cheerleading can be your entire life at Navarro, leaving less time for other interests. It was common to have two practices a day and if you cheered or worked for a club, you had to drive more than an hour into Dallas multiple times a week.
At Texas Tech, they are students first and cheerleaders second.
It's hard to know how that balance might have been different at Navarro if “Cheer” hadn't blown up like it did.
For those unfamiliar with the docuseries, it was produced by Greg Whiteley, who also produced “Last Chance U,” a similarly styled show about football. During the process of shooting “Last Chance U,” Whiteley observed the high-pressure world of competitive cheer and explored the idea of producing a show about it.
After some searching, Whiteley decided Navarro Community College was the perfect place to tell that story. That's when James and Maddy's lives collided with the narrative.
“The first year they filmed was different than the second,” James said. “When they first came in, they didn't really know what they wanted to do, so they filmed everything and kind of pieced the story together as they went. By the second season, they came in with a storyboard and vision. The second season was more action-packed and introduced more athletes than the first season did.”
Maddy traveled to Texas to sign with Navarro in 2019 and was filmed a little while there. The show was still shooting its first season, so Maddy had no idea what the interviews were for.
“They said it was for Netflix and I was like, ‘Sure it is' and kind of dismissed it,” Maddy said.
Then, the show was released, and it blew up overnight.
“I honestly wondered what I had gotten myself into,” Maddy said. “When I chose Navarro, the show didn't exist. I didn't enroll to be on Netflix, I enrolled to cheer.”
But James and Maddy were certainly grateful for the platform the show provided. It has given them opportunities to connect with athletes around the world and showcase their passion for the sport through the “Cheer Live 2022” tour.
“I think I can speak for both of us when I say the tour was the coolest experience we've ever been part of,” Maddy said. “Seeing a little girl crying in the front row because she is just so excited was a reminder of why we do what we do.”
The tour also provided the athletes an opportunity to see what the future of the sport could look like.
“It was great to be part of something that purely just got people excited about a passion we all share,” James said. “It wasn't competitive, it wasn't about being the best. It was a chance for us to celebrate a sport we all enjoy.”
In addition to supporting the ambitions of young athletes around the country, James and Maddy are excited to bring their strengths and influence to the Texas Tech Spirit Program.
“I hope anything we do from here on out with our brands or following, will help get Texas Tech the recognition it deserves,” Maddy said. “Since the spirit program isn't technically part of athletics, it struggles to get the funding it needs.”
The two won't stop maintaining their personal brands but are more focused on the Texas Tech brand right now.
“It's been eye-opening to be here because there are incredible, underrated athletes here and I just hope I can do my part in helping everyone get the recognition they deserve,” Maddy said.
And speaking of brands, the athletes are studying that exact thing.
James and Maddy are both majoring in creative media industries in the College of Media & Communication. Since they want to manage content for the cheer industry and other creative ventures, they feel creative media industries is the perfect route.
“The personal experiences we've had with the show definitely affect the way we absorb information in class,” James said. “It makes us think deeper about what we're learning.”
For example, the two recently listened to a lecture on press conferences and were able to relate it back to the experiences they had this past summer on tour.
“We looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh, we've done those,'” James said. “‘We know what he's talking about.' It will be helpful going into the industry to have had those experiences. Hopefully it will give us greater understanding.”
Maddy says what she's learning in class even relates to how she manages her social media. She is interested in discovering more about her audience, the segments they fall into and how to connect with people in a meaningful way.
“A lot of the experience we got from the show just fell in our laps, and it was hard to understand things while they were still happening,” Maddy said. “Now I've had a chance to catch my breath and learn some of the theories behind what I've experienced. But I'm glad I've had this experience; it's given me great examples for what I'm learning now.”