The roar of the crowd: A woman’s journey from the NFL to medical school

Former NFL cheerleader Hennelie Hawes responds to her call to serve by applying to doctor of osteopathic medical school

The sound of a roaring crowd in the football stadium faded into the background for former NFL cheerleader Hennelie Hawes when the call to help others through medicine became much louder. The Kansas City University (KCU) College of Osteopathic Medicine first-year student doctor was born with an unquenchable thirst for dancing. Growing up about 30 minutes outside of Minneapolis in Maple Grove, Minnesota, she spent much of her time in dance studios, perfecting her art with each passing year.

“I’ve been a dancer my entire life. I grew up dancing at a local dance studio, danced for my high school, then continued to dance with my college dance team. During college, I fell in love with the game-day side of things,” said Hawes.

Her love of performing introduced her to the world of cheerleading. Making the Minnesota Vikings cheerleading team was a dream come true for Hawes. Her time as a Vikings cheerleader taught her many lessons that benefit her now as a student doctor. She said as a professional NFL cheerleader, you not only represent the team, but the organization as a whole. It was a professional role that came with responsibilities she never imagined.

“With this kind of profile, maintaining professionalism in all areas of your life is so important, whether in uniform or not,” Hawes explained. “Similarly, as a physician, you are recognized as one both at work and in your personal life. When you become a doctor, your job doesn’t end when the workday ends; it encompasses you at all times. I learned this concept during my time with the Vikings and it was such a valuable experience for me.”

Along with talents and interest in the arts, Hawes also found great intrigue in medicine and healing others. Working an internship at a drug rehabilitation facility while studying abroad in Australia ignited her passion for the medical field. She reflected, “This experience taught me what it felt like to have patients trust you with their lives, and what it can mean to truly make an impact on someone’s life. It’s what confirmed that I wanted to work in medicine for the rest of my life and become a physician who patients can trust to always have their best interest in mind.”

When the time came for Hawes to apply to medical school, KCU stood out among other schools because of the campus environment. “Every medical school has an incredible program, but not every school fosters the kind of environment that makes students feel safe, supported, and heard. During my interview with KCU, students spoke very highly of the student-centered atmosphere. I felt that from faculty as well. It made the decision easy when choosing where I wanted to pursue my medical degree,” said Hawes.

Enrolled in the Health Professions Scholarship Program, Hawes will work as a physician in the United States Air Force after graduation. Her current interest is in emergency medicine, and she dreams of providing medical care to underserved populations in Africa. “My family is from South Africa, so I have a huge heart for underserved populations,” said Hawes.

An avid volunteer, Hawes is serving her sixth year with 30 For Freedom, a movement to end human trafficking by raising awareness and funding to help survivors. Additionally, she volunteers with KCU’s CHAMPS Anatomy Academy, an educational outreach program for elementary students that encourages healthy lifestyles and the pursuit of higher education through the teaching of anatomy and basic nutrition. She enthusiastically stated, “I love kids and have a passion for teaching, so I am very excited to have this opportunity.”

Hawes adds that one of the accomplishments she’s most proud of stems from starting a Darby’s Dancers program at the University of St. Thomas. The program teaches children with special needs to dance. She spent nine years volunteering with the organization as a dance instructor. “Getting to do something I loved while watching the joy it brought to these kids was so fulfilling,” she said. “I continued my involvement with the program and taught as a dance teacher at a local dance studio that has their own Darby’s Dancers program, and it became such a significant part of who I am today.”

Though she took a nontraditional path to medical school, undoubtedly, the skills and characteristics she honed during the journey—precision, teamwork, excellence and perseverance—will shape her as the future Dr. Hawes.