All-male, plus-size cheerleading squad set to debut for Florida Marlins
The baseball team sees the 'Manatees' as a way to bring back fans. The men find it liberating – 'I'm just a big ham having fun,' says one.
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During Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," some of the squad clearly can't remember which way, resulting in much hilarity. When the lyrics of Flo Rida's song "Low," featuring the rapper T-Pain, urge them to get "low low low," 6-foot, 3-inch, 325-pound Abe Thomas, who at 61 is the oldest of the Manatees, does his utmost to oblige.Skip to next paragraph
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"I have a bad back. After practice, I have to stay in bed for a day and chill out," he explains, clutching at a support brace strapped around his middle. But he is gamely joining in with the routine, looking dapper in a bowler hat and gold-rimmed spectacles as he bobs to the music.
He works as an assistant pastor at a Methodist church in Miami Gardens, where he inspires youth with his self-penned motivational storybooks about a boy named Skeeter who overcomes various life challenges. "When I saw the advertisement about the Manatees, I knew I fit the bill and that I shouldn't let my health situation hinder me. I have to overcome and endure," he says. "One of the most important premises in my book is that who you are, your size, how you look, has nothing to do with what you can accomplish. If you have hope and dedication and are willing to put in the hard work and perseverance, it's an accomplishment."
With a twinkle in his eye, he reminisces about how, as a child, he longed to run away to join the circus. "Now, this is my circus," he says.
For the Marlins franchise, which has struggled with dwindling attendance in the years since its 2003 World Series win, the Manatees are part of a marketing ramp-up aimed at re-invigorating a following.
"They have a super amount of passion, they can come out and really bring a charge to the stadium, make sure people have a good time," says Sean Flynn, the club's vice president of marketing. "People will relate to these guys because they're ordinary fans giving it their all."
But like Mr. Thomas, security officer Nelson Clark's motivation runs deeper. He is nicknamed Tiny, though he tips the scales "between 415 and 430 pounds." The 24-year-old, who blames his cuddly figure on a love of hot sauce and an overgenerous lunch lady at his school cafeteria, says that he wants "to show that big people can dance, too, big people can move, we have what it takes to make it just like skinny people."
"I used to be picked on a lot at school, I would be embarrassed. I was sick and tired of being big," he says. "Seeing the Marlins do this, it actually made me glad.... I'm showing kids who are heavy and big like me, Don't let nobody get you down, go out there and show you can dance, don't be shy, don't have low self-esteem."
His trim younger brother Brandon, who works as a model, reveals proudly: "It kind of makes him feel good. He doesn't like going out in public much because people look at him, but now this has made him feel really confident."
George Gonzalez, known as Disco George, hopes "to inspire other large men to get off the sofa and boogie down." He is wearing war paint on his face, blue Mardi Gras beads, and a whistle with flashing lights around his neck.
He used to be thin, he says, but that was in his bachelor days, when he would go out dancing several times a week and his job was more active than his current role as a desk-bound account manager for a computer sales firm. Now he is 278 pounds.
"I put 110 percent into this Manatees thing," he says. "I'm just a big ham having fun. And it's contagious. Like a smile."