By Sheila Stroup
When Lesslee Fitzmorris stands on the sidelines at Sun Life Stadium tonight, she’ll be watching the Super Bowl in a whole new way.
Fitzmorris, who has managed and directed the Saintsations since 2001, has been producing Super Bowl pregame shows and cheerleading clinics for the NFL since 1986. She has worked with everyone from Willie Nelson and Paul McCartney to Tina Turner and Beyonce.
So she’s still getting used to the idea of going to Miami just to watch the New Orleans Saints play.
“At the end of the Vikings game, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, my home team is going to the Super Bowl!’ I still can’t quite believe it, ” she says.
Fitzmorris’ parents were Saints season-ticket holders from the beginning, and when she was in junior high, she started going to games with her father, Bob Fitzmorris.
“I think about my dad all the time, ” she says. “On those drives from Slidell, I’d complain because nobody ever asked me out. He’d tell me, ‘If you want boys to notice you, you’ve got to learn to talk two things: fishing and football.'”
She was on the Slidell High School dance team, and after she graduated, her dad, who was the St. Tammany Parish clerk of court, encouraged her to try out for the LSU Golden Girls.
“I tried out just because he asked me to, and I made the team, ” she says.
Fitzmorris was packed to leave for Baton Rouge and her first dance team practice when her father died suddenly of a heart attack.
“He was only 41, ” she says. “I drove to that first practice, and then I drove home and we buried my dad.”
What got her through the difficult days that followed her father’s death was dance team practice and working with members of the LSU Tiger Band.
“Everybody just embraced me and kept me going, ” she says. “I couldn’t have made it through my freshman year without them.”
As a college student in need of money, Fitzmorris started working with high school dance and drill teams, putting on dance camps and teaching them routines. It was a natural progression. When she was a young girl, she liked to organize the kids in her neighborhood and put on little shows.
“People who grew up with me say I was always bossing people around, ” she says.
She was attending law school at Loyola University in 1985 when a bout with bacterial meningitis changed the trajectory of her life.
“I was in the hospital to have my spleen removed, and the doctors told me I had a 65 percent chance of not surviving, ” she says. “I learned at a very young age that time is precious.”
By then, her dance team camps had evolved into a business, American All Star Dance, and had spread all over Louisiana and to other states. When she was lying in her hospital bed, minus a spleen but happy to be alive, she had an idea: She knew a lot of young dancers with talent, and the Super Bowl was going to be in New Orleans in 1986. She could put on a little show in the Superdome.
“I called information and said, ‘Give me the number for the NFL, ‘ ” she says.
She figured she had nothing to lose. She got through to the director of special events. She talked. He listened. She went to Manhattan to meet with league officials. They said yes. And she put on her first splashy pregame show at Super Bowl XX.
After graduating from law school, she practiced law in Covington for a few years, but her dance team business and work with the NFL soon took up most of her time.
“I said, ‘I’m just going to do this until they quit calling.’ And they’re still calling, ” she says.
By the early 1990s, she had directed and choreographed the International Special Olympics closing ceremonies, an Academy Awards show and two Emmy Awards shows, along with her Super Bowl pregame shows. And she and her husband, Royce Mitchell, had a daughter, Caroline, and a son, William.
“And then the years just kept going by, ” Fitzmorris, 51, says.
When the Saints hired her company to produce and manage the Saintsations nine years ago, she wanted to make them “the best in the league.” She knew, from growing up a tall blonde dancer, that people have certain ideas about cheerleaders and dance teams.
“It’s not just about dancing, ” she says. “They are successful young women who will go out into the world and become leaders.”
Her Saintsations go through a three-part application process: First, they have a dance audition. Next, they have a formal interview with community business leaders. And to make the final cut, they have to pass a football quiz.
“They have to know the positions. They have to know every team and every mascot, and what division each team is in, ” Fitzmorris says. “I want them to know as much about football as the fans do.”
Most of them are college students or are starting careers. As Saintsations, they’re involved in community-service projects.
“They work with Angels’ Place and the Susan B. Komen Foundation, and they make dozens of public appearances, ” Fitzmorris says. “Some of them have been to Mexico. Some have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Saints cheerleaders also put on workshops for Junior Saintsations.
“They’re role models for little girls, ” she says.
They learn how to dodge players, referees, camera operators, and those guys who run around with the flags when the Saints make a touchdown. They learn what it means to be celebrities, too. The 10,000 2010 Saintsation Swimsuit Calendars that were printed are nearly sold old. People constantly ask them for autographs. And they saw country superstar Kenny Chesney snapping pictures of them during a recent Saints game.
“They figure out that celebrities are just people, ” Fitzmorris says.
She calls this season’s Saintsations “the dream team.”
“There’s something really special about them, ” she says.
She started the season by taking them on a three-day retreat in Destin, Fla., last spring.
“It was 34 girls and three bathrooms, ” she says. “And I took their cell phones away, so they had to connect with each other.”
It ended up being a wonderful experience for them. They shared the bathrooms and their lives, and they vowed to be there for each other on and off the field.
“They’re good girls, ” Fitzmorris says. “I’m strict with them, but they know I love them and care about them.”
And she’s thrilled that her dream team is going to have the best seat in the house for Super Bowl IVXL.
“I’m proud of them, and I’m proud of our football team, ” she says. “Now, we just want to bring that Vince Lombardi Trophy home.”
Fitzmorris already knows what her favorite part of the Super Bowl will be: watching the faces of the awe-struck Saints players and cheerleaders while they listen to Carrie Underwood sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and realize the final football game of the season is about to begin.
“The national anthem is always very moving, ” she says. “I think when people go there and see it, they’ll understand why I’ve been going back for 25 years.”