Back in the saddle
Former Falcons cheerleader participates in reunion at Dome

ATLANTA - Linda Jones did it for her four granddaughters. But she also did it for herself.

A member of the Atlanta Falcons' first cheerleading squad, the Gwinnett resident was back on the field Sunday, 41 years after she first waived red-and-white pompons at an NFL game and five years after open-heart surgery.

At age 60, Jones was the oldest former cheerleader who took part in Sunday's five-minute alumni routine before the Falcons' game against Denver at the Georgia Dome. She also may have been the most excited.

"I'm so nervous," she said beforehand.

For nearly four decades, her organized cheering had been limited to Brookwood High School football games. Her husband, Tom, is a longtime assistant coach with the Broncos and her two sons played for Brookwood before going off to college careers.

This time she wouldn't just be spelling out "B-R-O-N-C-O-S" to get Brookwood fans fired up, like she's known for doing at high school games. She would have to do a choreographed pregame routine with about 90 other former cheerleaders, some half her age.

Dancing wasn't part of the duties when Jones - then Linda Cole - was a cheerleader for the Falcons from 1967-70.

"We actually cheered back then," she said. "And we wore clothes, too."

The alumni cheerleaders wore much more than the Falcons' current cheerleaders Sunday, but they performed with the same enthusiasm.

Naomi Jones, the second-youngest grandchild, was the first to see her grandmother on the scoreboard video screen as she danced away. "Look, there's Nana," said the 2-year-old daughter of Jones' youngest son, Philip.

Jones' two oldest grandchildren both brought signs proclaiming their love and support.

"I thought she did great," said Sydney, 6.

"She was amazing," proclaimed Avery, 8.

"She inspired my girls and all of us," said Cory Jones, wife of Jones' oldest son, Tommy.

The dance routine left most of the alumni cheerleaders a little winded. "Cardiac arrest," Jones joked.

She gets serious when talking about her real heart issues, however. Jones experienced sharp chest pains while working out in 2003 and had to be rushed to the hospital.

"When they called for the chaplain, I knew I might be in trouble," she said.

With one of the main arteries to her heart 97 percent blocked, Jones underwent bypass surgery. Being able to take part in the alumni cheerleading routine was proof to herself and her family that she is still going strong.

"This meant a lot not only to her, but all of us," said Tommy Jones, head football coach at Lumpkin County. "My mom has always been the No. 1 cheerleader for all of us. We wanted to be here for her. It's a great day for the family."

Jones was a freshman at DeKalb College when her brother heard an announcement on the radio that the Falcons, having completed their first season, were going to form their own cheerleading squad for 1967.

A former head cheerleader at Decatur High School, she tried out with about 200 hopefuls and was one of 10 picked. In 1969 and 1970, she was the captain.

Tom Jones, away playing football for Wake Forest, only got to see a few of his girlfriend's games as a Falcons cheerleader. She quit when they got married and moved to North Carolina in 1971.

The Falcons brought back former cheerleaders in 1991 as part of the team's 25th anniversary, but that was when they played at the old Fulton County Stadium. "I never thought that I'd get to cheer in a place like the Georgia Dome," Linda Jones said.

To do it, she and the other alumni began practicing their routine back in September. Filling the field, four groups of former cheerleaders did their stuff on Sunday, with Jones' group right in front. The current cheerleaders joined them at the conclusion.

"I'm glad that it's over and that she did great," her husband said.

"I feel so blessed to be able to do this," Linda Jones said. "I hope the grandchildren will always remember it. It was very special for me."

"Mom always cheered for us," said Tommy Jones, who played at Furman while brother Philip played at South Carolina. "This time we got to cheer for her."