Meldrick "Mel" Umahon regularly performs in front of 70,000 people. As a professional cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens, the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing student routinely sees crowds more than twice the size of his university watching him from the seats of M&T Bank Stadium.
"I remember the first time I stepped out to the center of the field, just looking up at the crowd, and I was like, 'Wow. Look. I'm here,'" Umahon said. "I could not trade it for the world. … We're one community. We're Ravens fans."
Umahon got his first taste of cheerleading at Seton Hall University, where he majored in biochemistry, minored in musical theater, and also was a member of the school's cheerleading team. But after graduating, he wasn't sure where to go next. Umahon knew he wanted to pursue a career in medicine but didn't know which route was best for him. What's more, he'd left behind his cheerleading team and the sport he loved.
With the wheels in his head still turning, Umahon decided to bike around the country to raise money for the Ulman Foundation, a cancer nonprofit based in Baltimore. As he pedaled from state to state, Umahon stopped at countless cancer wards and centers, meeting patients and nurses. It was these interactions that inspired him to become a nurse himself.
After working in health care administration for a few years, Umahon applied to the School of Nursing's MSN Entry into Nursing Program, a five-semester degree for students looking to make a career switch into nursing. During his first semester in the program, Umahon decided to try a new barber shop in Canton. While there, he mentioned his long-lost love of cheerleading and learned that one of his barber's other clients was a cheerleader for the Ravens.
"I remember looking at [the Ravens] Instagram and thinking, 'Oh my God, they have a whole stunt team and a dance team,' which is pretty rare in the NFL cheerleading space," Umahon recalled. "There was just something in me that thought, 'Wow. I really miss cheerleading. This would be such a cool opportunity. … You know what? I'm just going to try it.'"
Baltimore has a long history when it comes to NFL cheerleading. In 1954, the Baltimore Colts created the league's first in-house cheerleading squad. In 1998, the Baltimore Ravens became the first team to include male stuntmen alongside their female cheerleaders, a change that Umahon was ready to take full advantage of.
The tryout process lasted most of Umahon's second semester in nursing school. When he was finally accepted to the team, he said, he felt an overwhelming wave of emotions: Exhilaration from being accepted, but also apprehension about what it would mean for his academics.
Balancing a master's program and professional cheerleading hasn't been easy for Umahon. In fact, he admits that it can be a serious struggle. But despite the sacrifices, he firmly believes that it's well worth it.
"I really don't know how I made it work, but I think it's the motivation and the passion I had for both nursing school and cheerleading that really pushed me through it," he said. "I was going to put 100% into everything."
That's Umahon's main trick for balancing his full schedule: focusing completely on the task in front of him. If he's at practice or a game, he puts all of his energy into cheerleading. If he's in class or studying, he pushes sports aside and gives all his attention to his schoolwork.
But while it's easy enough to make sure his classes and cheerleading practices don't overlap, as a nursing student, Umahon is also required to complete clinical training. It's here, he says, that JHU has been the most supportive.
"I was just very transparent. If clinicals were scheduled where it put my position on the Ravens in jeopardy, I told the school from the start," Umahon said. "Hopkins is amazing, especially the School of Nursing. They're very accommodating and very understanding. … They didn't respond back directly saying that they did it for me specifically, but what I was assigned happened to work out."
Being on the Ravens cheerleading team is not a small commitment. On top of frequent practices, game days require Umahon to spend more than eight hours on the clock. During this time, fans can find him performing on the field, greeting guests around the stadium, and cheering from the sidelines. As part of the stunt team, he's mainly tasked with keeping other cheerleaders up in the air, throwing them high and balancing them on his hands.
Performing stunts in front of such a large crowd can be intimidating, but according to Umahon, the attention never bothers him.
"I don't get nervous. I thought I would, but to be honest, you're just so focused on your job and just being there that everything kind of drowns out," he explained. "I'm looking up and it's just so chaotic and loud that in a sense it's peaceful. I feel calmer when there's that many people around."
But cheering on game days isn't Umahon's favorite part of being a cheerleader. To him, the most rewarding aspect of the job is going to community engagement events, where he gets to give back directly to the fans.
"This is what I love about NFL cheerleading," he said. "We're so involved in the Baltimore/NFL community. It feels like such an honor, but it also feels so natural."
Lots of engagements means lots of photos. Luckily, the Canton barber shop that Umahon visited during his first semester turned out to be a keeper. The cheerleader still gets his hair cut there monthly, chatting with the barbers about how the Ravens are doing. He made special care to visit before headshot day, when he was photographed for his very own signature card.
"As a thank you to my barber, I said, 'Hey, this is your haircut' and showed them the picture," Umahon said. "They were so excited for me."
Now, Umahon's signature card hangs up in the shop, ready to greet him every time he needs a pre-game trim.
Umahon plans to graduate from the School of Nursing this spring. After that, he wants to work toward becoming a family and psych nurse practitioner, though he admits his spontaneous personality might draw him in a different direction. As for cheerleading—like many of Umahon's stunts, that decision is still up in the air. Whether he tries out again next season depends on where he finds a job and how difficult his first year as a nurse is. Despite the uncertainty, Umahon is excited for what 2024 might bring.
"Yes, I physically do cheerleading, but figuratively I am always a cheerleader," he said. "My future is just to continue advocating for others, cheering people on, and if 10 years from now I'm not a nurse anymore, the one thing I always want to do is put a smile on someone's face."