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“Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” So went the very first organized cheer at an intercollegiate football game, a rallying cry meant to break the University of Minnesota squad’s losing streak. Though college football had begun in 1869, and all-male pep clubs had long sung fight songs to inspire their teams to victory, it wasn’t until the turn of the century—on this day, Nov. 2, in 1898—that a fan named Johnny Campbell led the cheer that would earn him the title of America’s first cheerleader.
Like Campbell, the majority of early cheerleaders were men—in large part because squads did not begin opening their ranks to women until the 1920s. The gender balance shifted further during World War II, when an increasing number of women filled positions vacated by men who had been drafted to fight in the war. By the 1960s, the sport became dominated by women, as National Football League teams began to organize professional squads.
LIFE magazine covered cheerleading in abundance, from the magazine’s inception in the late 1930s until it ceased publication in 1972. Cheerleading’s mid-air splits and synchronized pom-pom shakes were a win-win subject for a magazine that traded in stimulating visuals and glimpses into everyday American pastimes. Here, in celebration of the sport’s 117th anniversary, are LIFE’s greatest images of America’s purveyors of pep.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.