After spending about $100 on lower-bowl tickets and driving 2½ hours from the Lafayette area, Tracey Hernandez was nervous as she took her seat near midfield of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday night.

It wasn’t the preseason game the Saints were about to play against Arizona that worried her — the dance instructor hardly watches football. What mattered to her was how her son, Jesse, would fare in his debut as the first-ever male member of the Saintsations, New Orleans’ NFL dance team.

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The crowd in the stadium was the biggest Jesse had performed in front of since his dancing career began 23 years ago, at the age of 2.

The teasing and taunts he braved when he became the first boy to perform on the dance team at North Vermilion High School in his hometown of Maurice still stung Tracey.

But she calmed herself by reciting Jesse’s achievements up to this point — the competitions he’s won, the instructor gigs, his stint coaching the dance team for a minor-league hockey franchise in Lafayette that she herself once danced for.

She remembered how countless people had come up to her after word broke that Jesse had made the Saintsations and told her, “We are proud of him; we support him; give him our congratulations” — even burly men visiting the Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop where she works.

While she admitted being annoyed at online commenters who in recent weeks had insulted her son’s masculinity for becoming a Saintsation, she brushed them aside as kickoff time approached.

“Those people just need to get over it,” said Tracey Hernandez, who attended Friday’s game with three family friends, one of whom had an oversized, cutout picture of her son’s face.

“We’re in 2018. Things shouldn’t be just for men or just for women. If you have the ability to do it, you should be able to do it.”

It quickly became clear that neither Jesse nor the Saintsations minded letting him stand out from the rest of his otherwise all-female team.

Behind the scenes, he changed in a room that was separate from the rest of the squad, his mother said. 

Taller than most — if not all — of his teammates, he was the only Saintsation in black pants as well as a white and black T-shirt with a black fleur-de-lis on the chest for the first field performance of the night. The rest were in cheerleader-style dresses, similarly colored.

Jesse was the only one without pom-poms, dancing empty-handed and waving a white towel while on the sidelines rallying cheers. His shaved pompadour hairstyle didn’t flow through the air like the tresses of the rest.

For one number performed to the Fleur East song “Sax,” Jesse formed part of a line of dancers at the top of the formation that did a synchronized toe spin. The squad soon fell into a formation that resembled a pyramid, with him at the point.

In another performance, set to a mix of songs including Calvin Harris’ “Let’s Go” and Sam Sparro’s “Black & Gold,” Hernandez assumed a conspicuous spot in the middle of a kick-line. His kicks, gyrations and arm movements were smooth and eye-catching, which some noted on social media as photos of him warming up for the game spread online.

“This is what he loves doing,” said Mickey Richard, who accompanied Tracey Hernandez to the game. “Dancing is his life.”

As she worked through her jitters, Tracey Hernandez said, “He’s ready. What he told me is, ‘I’m ready to dance.’ ”

There are at least nine more home games ahead this season for Jesse, whom the Saints did not make available for an interview.

With so much of the new adventure still left, Tracey Hernandez said she was glad to learn from her son that his squad mates and coaches had been welcoming and supportive.

But he can also count on two other allies: Los Angeles Rams dancers Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies.

While NFL clubs — including the Saints — have had men and women perform cheerleading stunts together before, it is believed that Peron and Jinnies in late March became the first men in league history hired to perform dance routines with an otherwise all-female squad.

News coverage about the pair’s success inspired Hernandez to try out for the Saintsations in the spring. He first made waves by surviving an initial cut to 51 finalists, and then he made Saintsations history this month when it was announced that he had made the team.

Peron and Jinnies got in touch with Jesse, Tracey Hernandez said. They extended their congratulations — and a standing invitation for him to call if he needed help with anything.

Tracey Hernandez said she was as appreciative of the gesture as her son was.

“I know a lot of people used to feel the Saintsations and the other girls were there to give the guys in the stands something to look at during games,” Tracey Hernandez said. “But times have changed. And I just hope that people can be open-minded about it now.” 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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