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The Story Behind the Colts’ Pro Bowl Cheerleader’s Success

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 1/22/2022 Mackenzie Meaney

Vanessa Wahl always wanted to be a Pro Bowl cheerleader. After the death of her father, a lifelong Colts fan and the ultimate cheer dad, the achievement is even more meaningful.

Courtesy of Vanessa Wahl © Provided by Sports Illustrated Courtesy of Vanessa Wahl

When Vanessa Wahl started as a cheerleader for the Colts four seasons ago, she wrote down one thing in her journal every single day: to be a Pro Bowl cheerleader.

“I wanted to be the Pro Bowl cheerleader for all it encompasses,” Wahl says. “Being the ultimate cheerleader for everyone.”

After a challenging year, Wahl’s father, Jason Mueller, had stage II colon cancer and died in July 2021. So, the moment Wahl learned she was a Pro Bowl cheerleader was even more magical than just the announcement itself.

The clip, which went viral on Dec. 21 on ESPNW’s Instagram, showed Wahl, a “random season-ticket holder,” and Blue, the Colts’ mascot. The fans in the stadium quickly learn that the season-ticket holder was an actor, and the gift was for Wahl. Up on the video board was a clip of her mother, Hannah, announcing how much dance and cheerleading has been a big part of her daughter’s life, how her father was a lifelong Colt’s fan, and ultimately giving her the news that she was the Colts’ 2022 Pro Bowl cheerleader.

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“At first I thought my boyfriend was proposing,” Wahl says. “Then I saw my mom on the screen and it started to sink in that something really big must be happening. Then she mentioned my dad and all the emotions spilled out of me.”

Mueller grew up as a Colts fan thanks to his grandfather Norm, who was the mailman for the Colts’ complex. Mueller spent his childhood years visiting the stadium, meeting the players, the chief operating officer, and even Jim Irsay, the team owner.

“[Irsay and his family] actually sent flowers for his funeral,” Wahl says.

Mueller and Hannah went to high school together before going their separate ways—marrying other people and having separate families. By some stroke of luck, Mueller became Wahl’s fifth grade teacher when she was a student at Walnut Grove Elementary school in Bargersville, Ind.

“He was immediately my favorite teacher,” Wahl says. “I even came back the next year when I was in sixth grade to bring him brownies for his birthday, and he still has a powerpoint that I made him for his birthday when I was in his class.”

But when Wahl’s parents decided to split up right before she was in high school, Mueller came back into the picture.

It’s just like any other Hollywood rom-com movie—Hannah was the coach of the dance team when her daughter was in high school, and Mueller did play-by-play for the football and basketball teams. Hannah would bring Mueller the music for their routines. The two would chat, then eventually date, get married the following summer, and the rest is history

“He is my stepdad, but we are very close. We don’t believe in the word ‘step,’” Wahl says.

Wahl mentioned they were even going to go through the adoption process, but it ultimately didn’t pan out. Mueller was the first man in her life that encouraged her, supported her, and loved her, Wahl says.

“Family doesn’t have to be by blood,” Wahl says. “If I were to ever redo my life, I would choose him as my dad every single day.”

Courtesy of Vanessa Wahl © Provided by Sports Illustrated Courtesy of Vanessa Wahl

Wahl is going on her fifth season as a Colts cheerleader and her second as a co-captain, and no one has supported her journey more than her father. Mueller was thrilled to hear that Wahl was going to try out to be a Colts cheerleader, showing up to every corporate and community event she was part of, season-ticket holder events, and would even give Wahl and her teammates gifts.

“One time he gave us all vouchers to try cryotherapy and massages,” Wahl says.

Mueller wasn’t only supportive of Wahl though—he supported every Colts cheerleader, claiming the title of ultimate cheer dad.

“I have so many memories with him over the years,” Wahl says, adding that her favorites happened on Father’s Day.

During her second season as a cheerleader, Wahl and a few teammates were asked to talk about their dads. That was when Wahl volunteered to talk about Mueller and her blended family.

“I see this camera come into play from the corner, the door opens and I hear my dad’s big, booming voice behind me, and I immediately break down,” Wahl says.

Another memory was when the cheerleaders did a video of the dads of the girls on the team doing their makeup.

“It was quite the look,” Wahl says with a laugh. “Definitely not something I would wear to game days or appearances.”

Because of his ongoing support of the cheer team, for Father’s Day in 2021, the whole team did a tribute to Mueller, as they anticipated it would be the last time he’d get to enjoy the holiday.

Three years earlier, Mueller’s condition started to decline after he went in for a procedure and left with chronic pancreatitis. Half of his pancreas died off and was removed, and after two bouts of sepsis and several other health complications, Wahl and her family found out he had colon cancer in January 2021.

The cancer had eaten away at his colon, part of his stomach, and additional parts of his body, all of which had to be removed. The doctors could not remove all of the cancer and Mueller died later that year in July.

It was a devastating blow to all of Wahl’s family, but her cheerleading family, the Colts, and all of Colts Nation were there to support her in any way they could.

“I was not planning on trying out for a fifth season,” Wahl says. “But my coaches sat me down and just said, ‘You are not done. We can just feel it in our bones that you are not done.’”

Wahl’s coach was able to relate, as she had lost her mother when she was 25, a year younger than Wahl. Through the support system created within her team, Wahl was ready to take on the 2021–22 season, and can now cap it off with a Pro Bowl bid.

Even though Wahl’s father is no longer with her physically, she knows that every time she steps into Lucas Oil Stadium, her father is there too, especially when she was named to the Pro Bowl.

“I felt my dad with me, in that moment,” Wahl recalls with a smile. “It was so magical and I am so grateful.”

Mackenzie Meaney is a contributor for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.


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