Morgan Owens has gone from an area where college football usually plays second fiddle to pro sports to what might safely be considered “The Mecca of College Football.”

And she is right in the middle of it all as a freshman cheerleader for the defending national champion University of Alabama football team.

“Football isn’t just a sport here, it’s a lifestyle,” the Robbinsville High graduate said. “Everything revolves around football, and I have never seen fans so dedicated to their team and the players of the team.”

The Crimson Tide cheerleaders are as much a fabric of the Tuscaloosa society as the football players and coaches. When it comes to helping the Tide roll, they do more than just smile at the TV cameras Saturday.

The squad has intense practice regiments and keeps a busy schedule of social events, such as making personal appearances at nursing homes, grand openings, birthday parties and alumni events. That is all coupled with classes, which means it’s not just about glitz and glamour.

Owens would have it no other way.

“We are treated as Division I athletes,” she said. “We have practice at night and 5 a.m. workouts two days a week.

“It’s a lot of work but when you’re standing on the sidelines it is worth all the hard work. The first game I actually cried, it is such an amazing feeling. I still get goosebumps every game.”

It is literally a dream come true for Owens, who always wanted to go south and admitted to having any cheerleader’s desire of cheering for the No. 1 team in the nation—which Alabama was until a shocking upset loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 9.

Morgan started her career as a gymnast, which is pretty much a must when going into the cheer world of intense acrobatics. When she entered high school, her dad encouraged Owens to try cheerleading.

“I fell in love with it right away,” she said. “I started cheering for the Hamilton Starz, and ended up cheerleading at World Cup out of Freehold.”

During that time, both clubs won multiple national competitions. She also spent four years cheering for the Ravens football and basketball teams. Once Owens got accepted at Alabama, she began exploring her cheerleading options.

“I did not get recruited,” she said. “Cheerleading is different from most sports in that there is no recruiting, but I came down in advance for clinics and spoke with the coaches.

“Going to clinics really helps, so you’re a familiar face at tryouts. After that you try staying in touch with the coaches.”

Attempts to reach the Alabama cheerleading coaches were unsuccessful. But Owens must have done a good enough job in all facets, as she made the 28-woman roster on the All-Girl squad. There is a co-ed squad as well.

“Both teams are considered varsity so both teams cheer for football,” Owens explained. “This is only the second year of an all-girl squad at the university so it’s still a growing program.

“The co-ed team has the advantage of being able to travel with the football team. As an all-girl cheerleader, we cheer for home football games, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, and have to do appearances around Tuscaloosa.”

Owens noted that there are three positions—base, back spot and flyer, and she serves as a base. And while the former Raven doesn’t get to fly to away games, the home games have been like nothing else she has ever been a part of.

“It is the greatest feeling in the world,” Owens said. “As I said before, I cried my first game because it’s like my hard work has paid off. There is no better honor for a cheerleader than cheering for the number one football team in the nation.

“The atmosphere is unlike anything you could ever imagine. Everyone should watch a game at Bear Bryant Stadium at least once in their life!”

The one drawback to being a cheerleader is that sometimes you have to cheer when you would actually rather be rooting. And that can sometimes get in the way of watching a game like Alabama-LSU, when the Crimson Tide scored in the final minute for a thrilling comeback victory.

“In an intense game like that, it’s hard to stay focused on cheering and sometimes you find yourself watching the game,” Owens admitted. “In one game, I found myself peeking through the football players heads and missed a cheer being called out.”

That’s probably a gaffe made by most rookies in the big time, but Owens has been at her base all other times. Enough, in fact, to get some major air time.

“It’s crazy to think about,” she said, “but after the games I will check my phone and I will have text messages saying ‘I saw you on TV!’ or I’ll see pictures of me on ESPN.”

And while Owens has not yet picked up a full fledged southern accent, she did have a confession to make.

“I sometimes catch myself saying ‘Y’all,’ and it’s only been four months,” she said with a laugh. “Who knows what I’ll catch on to next.”

But it’s no secret she has fit in immediately. When asked if she had any other comments to add for this story, Owens gave the most predictable answer one could expect from an Alabama fan.

“Roooooolllllll Tide!”