When Vanessa Wahl started as a cheerleader for the Colts four seasons ago, she wrote one thing in her journal every day: becoming a Pro Bowl cheerleader.
“I wanted to be a Pro Bowl cheerleader in all that it entails,” says Wahl. “Being a great cheerleader for everyone.”
After a difficult year, Wahl’s father, Jason Mueller, had second-stage cancer and died in July 2021. So, the moment Wahl learned that he was a Pro Bowl cheerleader was even more magical than just the announcement itself.
The clip, which went viral on December 21 on ESPNW’s Instagram, featured Wahl, “a non-season-ticket holder,” and Blue, the Colts’ mascot. Fans in the stadium quickly realized that the season ticket holder was a player, and the gift was Wahl’s. Up on the video board was a clip of her mom, Hannah, announcing how much dancing and cheerleading has become a big part of her daughter’s life, how her dad was a lifelong Colts fan, and finally giving her the news that they were Colts. ‘ 2022 Pro Bowl cheerleader.
“At first I thought my boyfriend was dating,” says Wahl. “Then I saw my mother in the window and it started to sink in thinking that something big must be happening. Then she talked about my father and all the emotions poured into me.”
Mueller grew up a Colts fan thanks to his grandfather Norm, who was a Colts agent. Mueller spent his early years visiting the stadium, meeting the players, the general manager, and even Jim Irsay, the team’s owner.
“[Irsay and his family] sent flowers to his funeral,” says Wahl.
Mueller and Hannah attended high school before going their separate ways—marrying other people and having separate families. By another stroke of luck, Mueller became Wahl’s fifth-grade teacher when he was a student at Walnut Grove Elementary school in Bargersville, Ind.
“He immediately became my favorite teacher,” says Wahl. “I had to come back the next year when I was in sixth grade to bring him brownies for his birthday, and he still has the energy I made for him on his birthday when I was in his class.
But when Wahl’s parents decided to separate before he reached high school, Mueller came back into the picture.
It’s just like other Hollywood rom-com movies—Hannah was the dance team coach when her daughter was in high school, and Mueller did the play-by-play for the football and basketball teams. Hannah would bring Mueller music for their routine. The two chatted, eventually fell in love, got married the following summer, and the rest is history
“He is my stepfather, but we are very close. We don’t believe in the word ‘stage,’” says Wahl.
Wahl said that they would go through the process of adopting the children, but it did not happen. Mueller was the first man in her life to encourage her, support her, and love her, Wahl says.
“Family doesn’t have to be blood,” says Wahl. “If I were to redo my life, I would choose him as my father every day.”
Wahl is heading into his fifth season as a Colts cheerleader and second as co-captain, and no one has supported his journey more than his father. Mueller was happy to hear that Wahl would try to be a Colts keeper, showing up to all the corporate and community events he was a part of, in-time ticket events, and giving Wahl and his teammates gifts.
“One time he gave us all vouchers to try cryotherapy and massages,” says Wahl.
Mueller didn’t just support Wahl—he supported every Colts cheerleader, claiming the title of the ultimate cheerleader.
“I have a lot of memories with him over the years,” says Wahl, adding that his favorite happened on Father’s Day.
In her second season as a cheerleader, Wahl and a few teammates were asked to talk about their fathers. That’s when Wahl volunteered to talk about Mueller and his blended family.
“I see this camera go into the corner, the door opens and I hear my father’s voice, booming behind me, and I just collapse,” says Wahl.
Another memory was when they were happy when they made a video of the fathers of the girls in the team doing makeup.
“It was a look,” Wahl says with a laugh. “It’s definitely not something I would wear to a play date or look.”
Because of his continued support of the cheer team, on Father’s Day in 2021, the entire team honored Mueller, as they assumed it would be the last time they could enjoy the holiday.
Three years ago, Mueller’s condition began to deteriorate after he went to treatment and was left with pancreatitis. Half of his pancreas died and was removed, and after two bouts of sepsis and several other health problems, Wahl and his family learned he had colon cancer in January 2021.
The cancer had eaten away at his intestines, part of his stomach, and other parts of his body, which had to be removed. Doctors were unable to remove all of the cancer and Mueller died later that year in July.
It was heartbreaking for the entire Wahl family, but his family was happy, the Colts, and all of Colts Nation were there to support him in any way they could.
“I wasn’t planning on trying for a fifth season,” says Wahl. “But my coaches sat me down and said, ‘You’re not done yet. We can just feel it in our bones that you’re not done.”
Wahl’s teacher was able to relate, as he had lost his mother when he was 25, a year younger than Wahl. Through the support system created within his team, Wahl was ready to take on the 2021-22 season, and now he can cap it off with a Pro Bowl bid.
Although Wahl’s father is no longer with him physically, he knows that every time he enters Lucas Oil Stadium, his father is also there, especially when he was named to the Pro Bowl.
“I felt my father with me, at that moment,” Wahl recalls with a smile. “It was magical and I’m very grateful.”
Mackenzie Meaney is a co-founder of GoodSport, a media company dedicated to promoting the visibility of women and girls in sports.
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|No. 28 – Indianapolis Colts|
|NFL Draft:||2020 / Round: 2 / Pick: 41|
|Indianapolis Colts (2020-present)|
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