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(Listen to Kerry Benefield's "Overtime" podcast about Azur Ingrassia)

Azur Ingrassia is on his hands, face inches from the track, counting off calisthenic reps with teammates.

There is nothing terribly unique here. Ingrassia, now a senior at El Molino High School in Forestville, grew up playing football. He knows push-ups, he knows laps on the track, he knows group workouts.

But this isn’t football. The football team is one field over. These days, Ingrassia works out with the Lions’ cheerleading squad.

“In terms of social fun, I’ve had more fun on cheer than in football. It’s a lot more of a group thing,” he said. “I was raised by a single mother, so I think I’m prone to getting along with women more than guys.”

He likes the camaraderie. Guys, he said, sometimes base friendship on one-upping each other. Not that he misses that entirely.

“That was fun,” he said. “I do miss the competition; hitting people with my body. I’m a physical person.”

“But I can’t go back,” he said. He paused and added, “I can, but I don’t want to.”

It was just over a year ago when Ingrassia sought a doctor’s opinion about his neck pain and incessant headache. Scans showed a mass at the base of his brain. Further looks found a cyst on his pituitary gland. Ingrassia described it as like having a water balloon embedded in a cake; if it breaks, fluids could short out critical hormonal functioning.

In November of his junior year, surgeons went through his nose, drained the fluid and burned away the cyst’s membranes.

(Listen to Kerry Benefield's "Overtime" podcast about Azur Ingrassia)

Ingrassia was out of school for two months. A return to football was deemed out of the question.

“I wasn’t allowed to lift over five pounds for like six weeks after my surgery,” he said.

A gym rat and a member of the El Molino track team his entire high school career, he says he went a little crazy being cooped up. When he was cleared to walk on the treadmill, he stayed on for two hours.

But when he returned to school, he felt disconnected.

“Most of my friends were on the football team and I wasn’t going to practice and games. I wasn’t doing any of that,” he said. “I definitely felt weird, a little bit separated. It was weird not having to go to practice every day.”

It was about that time that classmate and cheerleader Talia Sanazzaro invited Ingrassia to try out.

“I thought he was going to come to the first practice and never come again,” she said.

Coach Jessica Walsh admits a bit of skepticism, too.

“He had never cheered before,” she said. “I was a little hesitant to see where he would pick up, but he is actually amazing, I have to say.

“We took him to cheer camp with us. He had a blast,” she said. “That is where he really learned to be a cheerleader.”

It’s clear Ingrassia already knew how to be a teammate.

“He is willing to do anything and everything to make the team better. He really supports the girls,” Walsh said. “Especially with running, if someone is lagging behind, he’ll go back and find them and look for them and help them back to us.”

On Tuesday, Ingrassia was paired with freshman Zoe Marigold, whom he cheered and cajoled through the mile warm-up and calisthenics.

“He’s really helpful,” Marigold said. “I just ran two laps without stopping. I’ve never really done that before.”

And the cheer team has never been able to do some of the flyer stunts that Ingrassia’s strength now allows them to perform.

“We are actually pushing them and doing flips in the air and all kinds of fun stuff and that’s due to Azur,” Walsh said.

Where maybe, in the beginning, there was some tongue clucking around campus at Ingrassia’s move from the gridiron to cheer squad, that seems to have faded.

“Eventually I got to the point where I don’t really care if people make jokes,” he said. “Throwing people in the air and stunting is actually fun; I thoroughly enjoy it.”

Walsh said the response during routines has been positive.

“They cheer even more when they get to see the cooler things that we are doing,” she said. “Compared to last year, the school has been much more supportive. I honestly feel like it is partly because of him because he was a football player ... everyone knows him, he’s a senior.

“I really do think he’s put a positive light toward the cheerleaders and the school,” she said.

Ingrassia,too, focuses on the positive. He ramped up his grade point average to a 4.0 during his time outside of school and he’s been accepted at Northern Arizona University, where he will pursue pediatric nursing.

But first, he’ll cheer.

Where Ingrassia might have once tried to make a tackle or big play to get the crowd fired up, now he uses a bullhorn and toe touches.

“Cheer has really brought me out of my shell,” he said. “I get to yell at the top of my lungs. The cheer routine we do at halftime and before games, I’m always nervous at the beginning. But once I start and get going and in the groove and doing my thing, it’s like there is no one there.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield. Hear a companion podcast on iTunes’ “Overtime with Kerry Benefield” or at pressdemocrat.com.

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