Marissa Herzig Brings Special Spirit to Rams' Sideline / by Ngozi Ekeledo

CLAYTON (WTVD) -- While hundreds of students attend Cleveland High School, all of them know who Marissa Herzig is.

"It's funny, she like walks down the hall and everybody's like, 'Hey Marissa, hey Marissa,' and she's like, 'Hey, hey.' She knows everybody," said Varsity cheerleading coach Kelley Townsend.

For five years, Marissa has been a staple in the Rams' sports scene, because that's where she found her biggest passion - cheerleading.

The 21-year-old has Down syndrome and attends a life skills program at the high school with other special needs students. Along with her twelve classmates, they learn different life skills under the guidance of a teacher, teaching assistants, and peer tutors who are interested in possibly working in special education at some point.

After school, Marissa's outlet and "reward" comes through cheerleading. She got the chance to participate in her favorite sport after transferring to Cleveland High School to be with her sister. Her adaptive PE teacher at the time, Meg Morris, reached out to Townsend about the possibility of Marissa cheering. The coach quickly said yes.

"She's so much fun," Townsend said. "We just kind of slowly started adding her into the program and teaching her the cheers and working with her after school, and she's just part of the team now."

Cleveland High School is one of just two schools in North Carolina that participates in the Sparkle Effect, an organization that helps bring together students with and without disabilities through cheerleading squads or dance teams. It's still a fairly new concept for the Rams athletic program, and Townsend admits that Marissa's first game was a bit "nerve-wracking" for everyone involved.

"We have great kids at this school, and we live in a great community, but I wasn't really sure how people would react," she said. "From the first game, they've been so accepting and so proud of her, and there hasn't been any negativity."

The reaction from visiting teams and crowds is a different story. In a previous incident in the past, Marissa's "Rams family" had her back through and through.

"We worry about her, of course. We've had people from other schools that have made rude comments. In one instance, a scorekeeper overhead it, and those fans were escorted out," Townsend said. "Marissa has made friends with coaches and players - of course, the big defensive ends. She's protected. We don't tolerate or promote that culture in Johnston County."

Under the Friday Night Lights, Herzig has also become a major part of the team's pep plan. In fact, a certain tradition revolves around the exuberant cheerleader.

"At the beginning of the game, the entire student section chants 'Marissa,' and it's like the best student-to-cheerleader correlation," said Varsity cheer captain Lindsey Stogner. "She shows such a compassion for everybody at our school, and then everybody at our school shows it right back."

When the cheer honoring her starts, Marissa shakes her pom-poms at the crowd, and even after years of the chant, she's still in awe of the star treatment.

"Hey, that's me," she said with a smile.

Townsend does the rest of the cheers in front of her during the games, and the Cleveland fan-favorite caps off her performances with signature dance moves and cartwheels.

"Seeing her do cheers, it's the best thing ever," Stogner said. "We get to cheer with her, and it's such an honor to do so."

This passionate hobby has also helped Herzig outside the sidelines.

"She takes the cheers to speech therapy, so it makes speech therapy more fun for her, and reading, cause she wants to read cheers, as opposed to her sight words," Townsend said. "She's more interested in the cheers and understanding that.

Marissa's presence has also helped those around her, especially her teammates.

"The rest of the team gets more out of her being there than she probably gets from us because they've learned patience, and they've learned that authentic spirit and to be joyful and enjoy every moment," Townsend said.

"We could be walking into practice and we just had, like, the worst practice, or we just had the worst day, then Marissa walks in and she does her dancing or all of her cartwheels, and it just makes all of us so proud that we get to have her as part of our team," Stogner said. "She can see the best in people, and I think we lose that ability as we get older, and so the fact that she's been doing that almost her entire life, it really inspires us to see the best in people, as well."

This is Marissa's final season cheering at Cleveland High School, and while it's bittersweet for her, the community she's inspired is bracing for an emotional senior night. They aren't quite ready to see their favorite star perform her final cheer.

"I think they'll be a few tissues out," Townsend said.

"She's never supposed to leave. She's always supposed to be a cheerleader with us, and you know after this year, she won't. She'll be moving on to bigger and better things, and we're so happy for her," Stogner said.

"We're just gonna miss Marissa so much."