So these three kids in Oakland Athletics Little League uniforms come up to me and ask who the manic little bald man with the drum is. They had seen me talking with him, but hadn't worked up the nerve to approach him themselves. "That's Krazy George, the most famous cheerleader of all time," I say. They look at me blankly. "He's worked for the Houston Oilers and the Kansas City Chiefs." Nothing. "He invented The Wave." That did it: Their eyes light up. The Wave! They run off to get his autograph.
I can see you rolling your eyes. A cheerleader? The Wave? Come on. I suppose he also wears an onion on his belt? But to those who have seen him in person, dissing Krazy George is like insulting the skills of Walter Payton, or throwing away your Willie Mays baseball cards. He's the grand old man of cheerleading; a genuine force of nature with an impressive resume of mischief, including the time he pissed off Chuck Noll so badly that the Steelers' coach tried to have him banned from the NFL.
He was also once involved in an infamous bidding war between two legendary NFL owners; fought a lion to a draw at a soccer game; owns a black belt in judo; and bills himself as the World's Sexiest Professional Cheerleader. Krazy George still has game, so get off your hands and get involved; it's not like you have a choice.
Forty years after first taking up a hand drum and working a sports crowd into a frenzy, Krazy George Henderson is still doing his thing. He's scaled it down quite a bit though; no longer working "the big rooms" such as Arrowhead Stadium or Candlestick Park. Now in his mid-60s, places like Banner Island Ballpark, home of the Class A California League Stockton Ports, where we caught up with him, are more to his liking. "Something like the Metrodome, that's just too much for me physically," said George, taking a short break between innings. "I sweat a lot out there; I work as hard as the players. A couple of years ago I even started using a microphone; something I never did before. Concessions to age."
Just watching Krazy George is a workout. He'll start at one end of the stadium, banging his drum and demanding attention; getting the adrenalin flowing. Then in the blink of an eye he'll appear at the other end, telling that portion of the crowd how enthusiastic the other people were, and how quiet they are. George learned long ago that the key to ramping up enthusiasm is to pit the crowd against itself; get the competitive juices flowing. And he's the master at it.
And that's how The Wave was born.
"It actually started when I was at San Jose State, getting sections to do separate cheers at football games," he said. "I would get three sections to stand and yell out S-J-S one at a time, and they loved it. Then I did a high school rally where there were no sections, and when I got the students to do the cheers, I noticed this kind of rolling effect."
That was in 1979 or so. The Oakland Athletics had hired him at about that time, and in 1981 he decided to try his invention on a larger scale. So on Oct. 15, 1981, during an American League Championship Series playoff game between the Athletics and Yankees, The Wave took its first baby steps.
"There were several false starts," he said. "I'd get one section to stand and yell, and the next section didn't know what to do. The key was, if one section did it right, I told them to boo the section that did it wrong. Eventually people caught on and it started moving."
Sportswriters in the press box, baffled by the spectacle, all but abandoned the game to keep tabs on the progress of The Wave. When it eventually made it all the way around the Coliseum, a gigantic, triumphant cheer arose which startled the players on the field, who didn't know what was going on. But the phenomenon didn't really catch on until two weeks later, when the University of Washington did it during its homecoming football game with Stanford. Claiming incorrectly that they invented it, a feud developed between the Huskies and the A's, and soon everyone had heard of it, and just about every crowd in every stadium worldwide was doing it. The Huskies' claim to The Wave still rankles George.
"I can't believe they have the nerve to claim it," he said. "I have 47,000 witnesses who were there at the Coliseum, and know the truth. The best part is that a year later, they were doing The Wave during a Monday Night Football Game, and Don Meredith mentioned that it was invented at the University of Washington. But Howard Cosell quickly corrected him. 'I hate to contradict you,' Howard said, 'But The Wave was actually invented at an Oakland A's-New York Yankees playoff game two weeks before." I was watching and almost fell out of my chair."
Henderson, a member of a National Championship-winning judo team while attending San Jose State, began cheerleading at football games there in 1968. "Someone gave me a bugle, but I didn't know how to play it," he said. "Then someone gave me a drum, and I just started hitting it. First it was 20 guys and me making noise, then it was 100." He liked it so much that after college he continued cheerleading at different Bay Area stadiums for free. He was teaching high school woodshop in 1975 when Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, saw him at a San Jose Earthquakes soccer game, and hired him to come to Kansas City for $35 per game.
"I didn't know what to charge," George said. "I had been doing it for free."
Hunt continued hiring him on a game-to-game basis until 1977, when Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams caught George's act and wanted him to come to Houston.
"We were in Lamar Hunt's suite at Arrowhead Stadium, and he and Bud Adams got into a bidding war right there with me in the room," George said. "Bud would say, 'I'll give him $500 per game," and Lamar would say 'I'll give him $600," and so on. Then Bud started talking with his own general manager, and they started bidding against each other, even though they were both with the Oilers. Finally it got up to $1,500, and I had to say no, because Lamar was right there in the room. But Bud took me downstairs to his motor home he had there in the parking lot, and as soon as I got in the door I yelled 'I'll take it!' "
And so suddenly he was making a living as a professional cheerleader, eventually branching out to the Saints, Vikings and Tennessee Titans, and then to Major League baseball, the NHL, the CFL, Oklahoma State football, and just about every other sport one can imagine. And yes, that includes lacrosse.
The highlight of his NHL cheerleading career was the night that five Boston Bruins left the bench to come after him in the stands.
"I was working for the Oakland Seals," he said. "Terry O'Reilly had high-sticked one of our guys, so I went down to the penalty box and banged the drum right in his ear. He went ballistic, and swung his stick at me. So I moved back into the stands, and he got four or five teammates and they went up after me. The players never reached me, but a couple of Boston fans did. But I got the better of that fight."
College judo black belt 2, Bruins fans 0.
Oh, and he also subdued a supposedly-tame lion when it went nuts and tried to eat its trainer during a performance at a Dallas Tornadoes pro soccer game. "He was screaming, 'Get it off me!' " George recalled. "Fat chance I'm going to wrestle a lion. So I ran up and hit it on the head with my drum, and ran. It worked; the lion stopped biting him."
These days, George lives in the notoriously lion-free area of Perryville, Maryland, where he and his fiance have a place on the Chesapeake Bay. He still takes cheerleading jobs, but his days of working the big stadiums are over.
"I like small stadiums where I can interact with the fans without killing myself," he said. "Minor league baseball is perfect for that. I come here (Stockton) every year just about, and I love it. There's nothing better than minor league baseball."
It may seem strange, but Krazy George has never yearned to be a celebrity. "I'm actually pretty shy," he said. "But when I walk into a stadium and I see a lot of people, something happens."
That something was happening again in Stockton, as George ran to the railing near the visitor's on-deck circle, and pointed at the on-deck hitter. "Who in the crowd thinks that I'm better looking than him?" yelled George. The crowd cheered and applauded, and even the on-deck hitter was laughing. "That one's an oldie but a goodie," said George, taking a seat after the final out of the inning. "I can't even remember when I started doing that one."
No, the good bits never get stale. And as if to prove that very point, at the other end of the stadium, those three Little Leaguers from before — who had chased after Krazy George's autograph — were up to mischief of their own. Down in the corner of the reserved section, they were starting The Wave.
"How about that?" said George, squinting toward that end of the stadium, smiling. "Isn't that something."
• And Your Free Funeral Winner Is ... The Grand Prairie AirHogs (Independent American Association) announced their Free Funeral Giveaway winner on Wednesday, with Elaine Fulps, 60, taking home the grand prize. “I almost croaked many times,” said Fulps, who was wearing a neck brace — the most recent effect of about 20 surgeries she’s undergone for various medical problems. “God still has me around for a reason. To win a funeral.” [Thanks to Sox & Dawgs]
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