Patience Pays Off for Beard

Arkansas freshman cheerleader Patience Beard inspires others with a story of perseverance through her lifetime.

Patience Beard understands the irony in her name. Born with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (PFFD), a disease which stunts growth, Beard and her family have exercised a lot of patience in her lifetime.

Patience was exhibited when, as a 9-month-old, Beard had her leg amputated and learned to walk with a prosthetic. Patience was exhibited when she went through an already awkward adolescent stage learning to cope with a body image different from other girls. Patience is still being exhibited as she balances life as a freshman at the University of Arkansas and the rigid physical demand expected of a Razorbacks cheerleader.

"Whenever my mom had me they had to tell her that something wasn't quite right with my leg," Beard said. "She thought Patience would be a pretty name and when I was born, she thought it was fitting.

"When I was growing up, she would try to to yell at me, but it's hard to yell at Patience without thinking, 'OK, be patient.'"

Even with a zebra print on her prosthetic leg, an infectious smile is the first thing you notice about Beard. The middle child of five, those who knew her while growing in up in Texarkana, Texas, say she has always had a positive outlook, one fitting of a cheerleader.

"It's interesting to go anywhere with her because people will always come up to her and she just handles it so well," said Susan Waldrep, Beard's high school cheerleading sponsor. "She never gets thrown by it.

"The really good thing about her is that she's always the same. She has had a lot of trials in her life, but she's always the same."

Beard has never considered herself handicapped. She calls the pictures of her as an infant with two legs "strange."

Her earliest -- in fact, only -- memories consist of what others might see as a disability, but what she views as normal. She reflects on a story from around fifth grade when her family went to the beach. Aware and embarrassed of others looking at her, she asked her mother if she could wear long pants the next day to cover her legs.

"My mom encouraged me and told me, 'It's who you are, so don't think anything of it,'" Beard said. "I sat there and thought, 'You know, you're right. This is who I am.' Since then, I've just thought this is who I am.

"I don't see myself as any different. My friends don't see me any differently and that helps. It's just who I am."

As an elementary school student she was able to use her experiences as an amputee to encourage her 80-year-old great-grandfather when his leg was amputated because of diabetes.

"He lived next door to me when it happened, so I went over there every day and asked him how it was going," Beard said. "He got a prosthetic leg, but he never walked on it; he was too scared. I tried as hard as I could to help him out and relate with him, and I think it helped him to have me there with him through that process."

Beard was and still is fearless with her prosthetic. She began gymnastics at the age of 4 and joined a group called the Tumbling Tigers in sixth grade. By seventh grade, she successfully tried out for cheerleader and that same year joined a competitive cheer team, the Twin City All-Stars.

"I really don't remember it being harder," Beard said. "I remember it being scary -- like anybody would be scared to attempt a backflip -- but I really don't remember having a hard time with it."

Beard will try anything, selected even for a snow skiing trip in high school by the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital. Her fearlessness translates to her craft.

"She worked out with a guy who used to be a cheerleader at Louisiana Tech and he said she would do things that more talented cheerleaders were too afraid to do," Waldrep said.

Waldrep first saw Beard cheerlead as an eighth grader at the persistence of one of her two older brothers. What she first noticed about Beard was what appeared to be a M&M sock.

"Zane, her brother, said, 'Mrs. Waldrep, you've got to look closer,'" Waldrep said. "I was completely shocked because she looked like everyone else, except for she had a big M&M on her leg.

"I took over as her cheer sponsor her junior year and by the time we went to cheer camp at the U of A the summer before her senior year, I had forgotten she was hurt because she did everything. She never complains about walking, never complains about running, never complains about doing anything -- it had just gotten to the point it didn't dawn on me she had a disability anymore. You just kind of wiped it from your mind."

Beard began to develop an affinity for the University of Arkansas in high school, to the delight of Susan Waldrep and her daughter, Texas High cheer coach Courtney Waldrep. Susan became a fan of all things Northwest Arkansas when Courtney came to Arkansas as a Razorbacks cheerleader.

Susan Waldrep recalled a Texas High game at Bentonville during Beard's junior year in which the cheerleaders chartered a bus and toured Fayetteville the next day.

"The seniors got to pick where they wanted to go to cheer camp the next summer and they picked Arkansas," Waldrep said. "Patience really wanted to go there. Once she stepped on the campus, that was it."

Being a Razorbacks fan in high school dripped with almost as much irony as her name. Rival school Arkansas High in Texarkana shares the same mascot with the University of Arkansas.

"A lot of people at my school still wanted to come here, so it wasn't a big deal when I wore my Razorback stuff," said Beard, who estimates she has 15 friends from high school on campus with her in Fayetteville.

It also helped Texas High had a pipeline to the Razorbacks' football program. Ryan Mallett, Cobi Hamilton, Jacob Skinner and Jeremy Harrell are among the players who migrated across the Texarkana border in recent years.

"When Cobi was trying to decide where to go to school, I told him to think about which state would support him the rest of his life," Waldrep said. "Once you play football at Arkansas, they will remember you the rest of your life. It's very impactive to go there and see all the heritage and traditions, and fun things about it. I told Ryan Mallett the same thing before he decided to go to Michigan.

"Those are the things Patience saw, too -- the camaraderie and the fun aspects. You can look at some people and just know Arkansas is the fit for them. Patience looked like someone who could cheer at Arkansas; she just had that bubbly fun look that I've seen there for a long time. One of the reasons she wanted to try out for cheerleader was to show others they can do whatever they want."

Jean Nail has been associated with the spirit squads for the Razorbacks for more than 30 years. She can't remember any situation as unique as Beard's, noting the closest was when a deaf girl thought about trying out for the UA dance team several years ago before deciding not to see it through.

Nail was immediately drawn to Beard's prosthetic in a full-length picture on the DVD sent in prior to her tryout last spring.

"I went, 'Wow!'" Nail said. "I was startled by it and didn't know what to expect until we popped the DVD in. We were very amazed and impressed with what she could do. It was very exciting.

"She was a little bit of an unknown coming in. There's a little blurb they do on their DVD that introduces themselves and one of the things she mentioned was that she 'would really like to help people that are like me.' That isn't the reason she made the squad -- she made it because she's really good -- but you get the sense that she is a very giving person, and she is."

Beard made the UA cheerleading squad in mid-April and by the next Saturday she was in uniform for the Razorbacks' spring football game. Some noticed her at the time, but her popularity has spread like wildfire in recent weeks.

There have been constant interview requests and she's been a regular for television features locally.

"It's surprising that I've had so much positive feedback," Beard said. "I'll have people stop me on my way to class to say, 'Oh, I read an article about you; you're so cool!' All my friends back home think it's so neat, but this is just me doing what I love."

Nail has been less surprised by the attention Beard has received, calling her situation "exceptional and inspiring". Kevin Trainor, a longtime UA athletics director for media relations, is now coordinating the mounting interview requests as Beard tries to balance being a full-time student and full-time cheerleader.

"She had cheered three games before we really did anything because we wanted her to do it after she had been out there and gotten comfortable," Nail said. "We wanted her to be able to tell people what it was like to be a Razorback cheerleader because she had actually been one.

"We're guarding it to where we don't want her to get overwhelmed. She's a freshman at the University of Arkansas and we want her to have as normal a freshman situation as she can. People like to come to college and experience new things, and we want her to experience them, too."

Beard fits right in with the others on the Arkansas squad. Wearing a flip-flop on her prosthetic foot, the reigning Homecoming queen freely admits she's "such a girl. I wear high heels, too."

Beard is hopeful she can inspire others like her with her story of perseverance and success. She is majoring in communications in the UA's Fulbright College, hopeful to hone her public speaking.

"My hospital has a peer program that I signed up for and they've called a few times and let me talk to some of the younger girls that are going through this," Beard said. "I talked to some middle school students, I talked to a guy who had cancer and had his leg amputated and wanted to play football."

Nail is hopeful the UA can assist Beard in her community outreach even after football season, when she'll also serve as a basketball cheerleader. "It's kind of a calling," Nail said. "We'll present her with requests and if she can and wants to do them, we'll support her."

Beard said the zebra print might soon be changing -- a Razorback pattern seems fitting right now -- but she is hopeful the message doesn't.

"I think it's neat that everyone sees myself as an inspiration," Beard said. "I just see myself as a normal person, but I'm glad I inspire others."

Patience Beard has a new leg with Razorback graphics on order.

Patience Beard cheers at the opening game of the season.

Patience Beard (center) has been a part of a string of stars from Texarkana to migrate to the University of Arkansas.

Photos by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated

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