MADISON, Wis. — Olive Sagapolu stands 6-foot-2, weighs 346 pounds and plays exactly the position anyone would expect on the football field. As a starting nose guard for Wisconsin, he is responsible for occupying double teams and fighting against more than 600 pounds of human flesh nearly every snap.
If Sagapolu weren’t a football player, you might envision him as a heavyweight division wrestler or a shot put thrower. But here’s one sport that likely doesn’t come to mind: cheerleading.
“Most people kind of are in awe thinking, ‘Wow, you actually did cheerleading?’ ” Sagapolu said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did.’ I kind of say it proudly. It’s cool. It’s fun to do.”
Yes, Sagapolu really did spend part of his senior year of high school at football powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., on the varsity cheerleading squad. According to Sagapolu, he and his cousin were friends with several team members, who convinced them to join.
“They’ve always told us it’s kind of like lifting,” Sagapolu said. “You get to hang out with girls most of the time. They said, ‘Just come on out, toss the girls around.’ We were kind of hesitant because we were scared to drop them. The girls eventually started trusting us, and we could throw some stunts and I tried to do different tricks. Like doing a backflip onto my hands, something cool like that.”
That story might belie the stereotype of a typical football player, particularly for someone who weighs more than anyone else on his team. But much about Sagapolu differs from preconceived notions. He is an excellent ukulele player, his dance moves steal the show, he can pull off the splits and he even once performed a standing backflip at his National Signing Day ceremony.
Not your average nose guard indeed.
“I know when he first came in, everyone was talking about how he was a cheerleader,” Wisconsin defensive end Alec James said. “And I saw him, and I was like, ‘Man, there’s no way he’s a cheerleader.’ Whenever he gets around cheerleaders or the cheerleading team here, you can tell he loves it. He knows all the moves and all that kind of stuff, so it’s cool to see.”
Added defensive end Chikwe Obasih: “It’s a pretty good combo. It’s like you can try and make fun of him, but you’re really not going to make fun of him to his face.”
Sagapolu was part of a Mater Dei team that finished in third place at the 2015 National High School Cheerleading Championship in the small varsity coed group. His primary responsibility was to hoist female cheerleaders in the air, sometimes with one hand, before catching them — traits that highlighted his excellent strength.
— Brice Marich (@BriceMarich) February 25, 2015
But he also took pride in learning how to perform tricks that showcased his agility. For example, he said he learned how to do his standing backflip after practicing with members of the cheer team on a trampoline and tumbling track.
“It took me about three or four times to actually land it on my feet,” Sagapolu said. “I’ve always thought it’d be cool.”
Sagapolu’s fleetness of foot has been a topic of conversation among teammates and coaches for some time. Every winter, members of the football team participate in a dance number with the school’s dance squad at the Kohl Center during a break in one of the men’s basketball games.
In February, Sagapolu was among the football players to take the court. One picture caught him performing a full split in mid-air, which quickly made the social media rounds and inspired awe from teammates and coaches.
Saw some pretty impressive dance moves last night.
…but Olive Sagapolu may have stolen the show. 👀 pic.twitter.com/hwuPltawvy
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) February 13, 2017
“I think he’s really athletic,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s crazy. There’s that picture from when they did that dance routine, which I’m a big fan of. That’s all you need to say. Is this kid athletic? And you see that. We knew about that before. I think he’s extremely athletic, period. And then you add the size to it, it’s pretty amazing.”
Sagapolu said even he was surprised when he discovered the picture really was him. But he has worked to maintain his flexibility for years, which he said he believes enhances his ability to play nose guard.
While cheerleading and football wouldn’t appear to have much in common, Sagapolu said he learned a valuable lesson on the cheer team that he has applied to football.
“One thing I did take away from cheerleading that I kind of incorporated into football is about leadership and trusting each other,” Sagapolu said. “Trusting my guy to the left, guy to the right on the D-line. In cheerleading, you’ve got to trust that the person you’re throwing up, you’re going to catch them. That’s their life. It’s kind of weird to say. It’s not really life here. It’s more just trusting what each guy has to do and how they’re willing to play as hard as they can.”
he most definitely did! Toe touch, splits, he can do it all 💃🏻💪🏼 pic.twitter.com/xaK0HgrxQF
— claudia koch (@claudialkoch) February 13, 2017
On the football field, Sagapolu has become a staple on Wisconsin’s defensive line. The junior has played in 24 games for the Badgers with 11 starts. Sagapolu has 21 career tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks. But those numbers don’t necessarily reflect his value to the team because he plays what many consider to be the most thankless position on the defense. If he performs his job well, others generally make the plays.
“He can play a terrible game and nobody will know,” Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “He can play a great game and nobody will know a lot of times. But he champions the details of that position, and he’s got to continue to push and play well for us.”
In order to hone those details, Sagapolu said he asks himself three questions after every practice: Was I physical enough? Did I react and attack correctly? Did I chase the ball after the play? He then grades himself each day on how effectively he performed in those areas.
Sagapolu has not recorded a statistic yet in two Badgers victories to open the season. But Leonhard said his play-making ability would go a long way toward helping the defensive line thrive in the coming months.
And when Sagapolu finishes the season, his teammates have a pretty good idea where they’ll be able to find him. One of the most surprisingly athletic players on the team likely will be sharpening his other craft — stealing the spotlight for a future dance routine at the Kohl Center.
“He loves it,” Obasih said. “He really busts out his moves, and he just really stars in that. I think this year he’s probably going to be front and center for that performance.”