Promoting the values of education-based athletics and activities programs is central to the NFHS mission. Participation provides students with opportunities to learn character traits such as discipline, hard work, responsibility, sacrifice and respect, which often transcend the school setting and help catalyze successful professional careers. Considering these long-lasting benefits, engaging in sports and activities can be life-changing for some. While that was certainly the case for Bill Seely, now the president of Varsity Spirit, the significance of participating ran even deeper. It was lifesaving.
With his biological father a member of the Armed Forces, Seely covered more miles as a preschooler than some people do in a lifetime. Shortly after his birth in Honolulu, Hawaii, his family relocated roughly 5,000 miles to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and then logged nearly 3,000 more to the Pacific Coast of California, where an unthinkable tragedy altered 5-year-old Bill’s life forever.
On his way home from work one night, Seely’s father approached an intersection on his motorcycle and collided with a car that had sped through a red light. He survived the crash but sustained a number of significant injuries, including permanent brain damage. After several months plagued by constant headaches and other ailments, he took his own life.
“That changed everything,” said Seely. “Now, I had a 29-yearold mom with two kids who just lost her husband, and so my mom, my little sister and I moved back to New York to be closer to her side of the family.”
Life in New York was tough. Streets in the Seely’s new neighborhood abounded with gang activity and rough characters. Schools included metal detectors and weekly canine drug sweeps. Dangerous situations – including an instance where Bill was shot by an impaired friend at the age of 12 – were now a part of everyday life.
“I had three friends in New York that I grew up with,” Seely said. “One of them took his own life when he was 13 and the other two did time in prison – and they had mothers and fathers.”
But for as dreary as it was, New York was also where Seely’s mother introduced him to sports.
“My mother did everything she could to keep my sister and me plugged in to positive activities, so we didn’t have too much idle time to get into trouble,” he said. “Being surrounded by the circumstances, I did end up doing some things I’m not proud of, but sports kept me out of a lot of the really dangerous things that some of my friends got involved in.”
Starting at the age of six, Seely played football, basketball and baseball and became immediately enthralled with sports. After school he could often be found practicing on his own in the backyard.
He especially excelled in baseball as a youth and had the good fortune of meeting a coach who spent countless extra hours with him individually. Subsequently, that man – Coach Scalzo – became one of the most influential people in his life.
“Coach Scalzo was there for my formative years,” Seely said. “He would take me to the ballfields on the weekends to work with me as a catcher and pitcher for hours and then take me to lunch and talk to me about life stuff – how I was doing in school, who I was hanging out with and all of that. He even helped me get my first job delivering the New York Times.”
Seely’s mother later married another active-duty military officer, which eventually moved the family to Germany just before Bill started high school. In addition to being named all-Europe in football, basketball and baseball for each of his three years abroad, Bill took up skiing, and rose to be ranked as high as third among the world-class skiers on his circuit. A natural introvert, Seely also credits his time in Germany with making him more outgoing.
“I could have just kind of curled up into my shell, but I wanted to play sports and be active so that kind of forces you out of being an introvert,” he said. “It made me more understanding of people and the differences between them and helped me to be comfortable interacting so I could develop relationships.”
The family returned to America prior to his senior year, leaving the star athlete little time to earn a college athletic scholarship.
He accepted a partial NCAA Division I baseball offer to attend Virginia Military Institute but was unable to participate in his only season there after a Christmas Break skiing accident resulted in a compound fracture of his left leg. Stuck on the sidelines and dissatisfied with the regimented military lifestyle, Seely transferred to Winthrop University.
Originally planning to continue his baseball career, Seely was instead talked into trying out for the cheerleading team by a couple of female friends. Although initially unwilling, he attended tryouts and made the team.
“You hear all the stereotypes about cheerleading, and it made me think it wasn’t for me,” Seely said. “Then, I got in there and started doing some of the drills and I was like, ‘man, this is tough!’ It was hard, and then it had this other really cool dynamic in that it’s the only activity that is truly co-ed, which forces you to learn how to interact with male and female teammates. That, coupled with the athleticism of it and the competition aspect – I was drawn to it. It was so unique.”
After a year at Winthrop, Seely transferred to Northern Virginia to attend George Mason University, where he also made the cheer squad. As part of the sports management curriculum at GMU, Seely was required to take part in a full-time internship during his final semester. Having recently captained the Patriots’ cheerleading team to a national championship, he elected to work with Varsity – a small outfit at the time – over opportunities with the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics and Nike.
Nearing the conclusion of the internship, Seely set up a meeting with Greg Webb – brother of Varsity founder Jeff Webb – to review his resume for the impending job hunt. Rather than offer critiques, Greg told Bill he wouldn›t need a resume, and offered him a job on the spot.
“I was stunned, thrilled, humbled and so honored to have the opportunity,” said Seely. “I think it took me all of two seconds to accept my $17,000-per-year job. I never thought I would be fortunate enough to work for Varsity Spirit full-time.”
Seely ascended the organizational rungs to become Varsity Brands Senior Vice President but stepped away in 2004 to launch Crosscheck Sports, a youth sports ministry designed to bridge the urban and suburban areas of Memphis. It is now the largest youth sports organization in the city.
“We went into the inner-city neighborhoods similar to the ones I grew up in that didn’t have sports programs and we created programs for youth that were intentional,” he said. “Sports, to me, made the difference in getting me out of my situation and tethered towards a good path, and I wanted other kids to have that growing up.”
With Crosscheck flourishing, Seely rejoined Varsity in 2011 and was named president in 2017. Now in his fourth year at the helm for Varsity Spirit, which is joined by Herff Jones and BSN Sports as the three entities under Varsity Brands, Seely oversees an emerging supergiant in the spirit sphere. The worldwide leader in cheerleading and dance team apparel, educational camps and competitions, Varsity Spirit outfits approximately 750,000 athletes and orchestrates more than 5,000 camps and 600 competitions across all 50 states each year.
As the numbers illustrate, the organization has grown immensely from its roots in the 1970s, but, more importantly, has evolved its mission to promote school spirit for the betterment of the entire school community.
“Knowing what cheerleaders and dancers do inside their schools with pep rallies and trying to create an engaging gameday environment, we felt we should commission a study to see if school spirit carried over into student achievement, and the results were overwhelmingly positive,” Seely said. “When students are engaged in their schools they do better across the board, and that’s why I came back (to Varsity) – to do something purposeful that had a longer- term impact.”
Focusing on the broader effects of school spirit also led Varsity to pursue involvement with performing arts.
“At the time we petitioned this survey we were only in cheer and dance, which are two of the three big school spirit assets,” said Seely. “As we began to think about elevating the student experience inside schools, we felt compelled to pursue the performing arts. We have been able to partner with performing arts groups that are passionate about band and equally as passionate about our mission, and we’re excited about the future of Varsity Performing Arts.”
At Varsity, the word “impact” has an additional meaning. The IMPACT program is designed to improve each partner school’s unique student experience by addressing its specific needs.
One such IMPACT offering is the “Believe in You Challenge.” Led by a team of motivational speakers including Kevin Atlas, the program covers a variety of topics including student connectivity and depression. Another initiative is centered on rebranding efforts for schools that lack consistency with their athletic logos. Varsity designs new logos and campus signage for its partners, and then provides them with all the materials to carry the process forward.
Bill Seely is seemingly the perfect fit for Varsity Spirit – a man and an organization both keenly focused on providing for and giving back to the current generation of youth and high school activities participants; both parties share an obvious, genuine passion for the cause.
And considering the role sports and activities played in his own life, Seely’s passion isn’t difficult to comprehend. They saved his life.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.