Ahh, the holidays—the perfect time to get away from work and relax, right? Not the case for Les Stella. From Easter to Christmas Eve to Thanksgiving, no day is too sacred for the hundreds of coaches worldwide who call Stella day in and day out to clarify USASF rules. “The only day I haven’t gotten a call is Christmas,” shares Stella. “Calls come in at all hours, since we do this for the world, not just the U.S. It’ll be the middle of the night, and I’ll get a call from Australia. It’s all over the map.”
Most would probably draw the line at giving out their personal cell phone numbers to an entire industry of cheer professionals, but Stella considers it all in a day’s work as USASF’s Executive Director of Rules. He keeps his iPad on him at all times for easy reference and to double-check for accuracy.
“My role is basically the keeper/enforcer of the rules,” says Stella, who is currently developing a database that will make it much easier to reference rules and their interpretations. “A lot of people assume that it’s the world according to Les Stella, but I’m just a part of the committee. However, at the end of the day, there has to be a ‘bottom line’ person—and that’s me.”
So how did Stella amass such an encyclopedic knowledge of all-star cheerleading and its intricacies? Attribute his passion and penchant for cheer to 30 years spent in the sport. Stella first started cheering in 1983 as a De La Salle High School student in New Orleans after his karate troupe was approached by a group of cheerleaders: “I was outside with a few buddies working on our [karate] form, when three attractive females came up to us and said, ‘You have really sharp motions—want to try a stunt?’ I was hooked ever since.”
After high school, Stella went on to cheer for three different colleges and become a UCA camp instructor. From there, his cheer career included coaching positions at Germantown High School and The Ultimate Cheer School (TUCS), as well as at a large gymnastics gym in Georgia. While taking his teams to competition, Stella was keenly aware of the fact that routines had to be altered constantly to fit the rules for each different event. This observation caused a light bulb moment for him in 2003: what if there was a governing body that could help regulate and create more consistency?
Stella quickly set up a meeting, asking for two hours of Bill Seely’s time and two hours of Jeff Webb’s time. “All the years I’d worked for UCA, I’d never asked for a favor, so I called one in,” he remembers. “[They said], ‘The good news is: you have great ideas and we like everything you have to say. The bad news is we just started a governing body. The ham sandwich is that we want to make an offer to you to move to Memphis and help start the USASF.’”
In his decade with the USASF, Stella has become one of its most recognizable faces and figures. He is known as the “Rules Guy,” running the committee and traveling to regional meetings to train safety judges on interpreting the rules. Though his job can often be tension-filled and stressful, Stella says he understands when coaches hotly debate a penalty. “When I was a coach, I needed someone to turn to for answers, so I can have empathy for coaches in those situations,” says Stella. “I don’t take it personally—they’re just defending their business, their kids, the way they pay their mortgage.”
That isn’t the only way Stella supports other cheer professionals. He soon plans to revive the “Les Stella Coaches’ Challenge,” a motivational Facebook group dedicated to fitness, and “Good for Cheer,” an initiative Stella is spearheading to create more media awareness around the positive side of cheerleading. “I get so sick and tired of mainstream media only talking about cheerleading when something bad happens,” shares Stella. “I’m collecting stories that provide a counterpoint to those negative ones.”
It’s all part of a deep passion for cheer that drives Stella every single day. “I’ve seen what cheer does for kids—thousands and thousands who come out of their shells and develop skills that follow them for life,” he says. “It’s such a cliché, but that’s what I truly believe.”