This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's May 7, 2007, issue. Subscribe today!
YOU PUT YOUR RIGHT FOOT IN.
Tentatively, you step onto the Virginia Tech campus on a sublime Sunday afternoon in mid-August.
Classes are a week away, so only a few people are walking across the Drillfield. Not much is going on.
Then you hear it: the boom-boom of the bass drums, the boppity-bop of the tenors, the tak-tak-tak of the snares, the tinkle of the glockenspiels.
This is the first day of band camp for the Marching Virginians, and the drum line is rousing Blacksburg from its summer trance.
Let's stop for just a moment to consider the college marching band. There are those who would dismiss it as an anachronism, a bunch of dorks who play dress-up and sousaphones and music not normally found on an iPod. Forget and forgive such cynics, because chances are they have never been to a big college football game and seen how much a band means to school spirit. They've never marveled at the formations or heard the fanfare or felt the rumble beneath their feet.
They've almost certainly never been to Lane Stadium and witnessed the "330 Strong" of the Marching Virginians move as one to form the outline of their state then scurry to morph into the Virginia Tech logo -- a complex maneuver that takes just 25 seconds -- all while playing "Carry Me Back" and "VPI Victory March." Nor have nonbelievers had the pleasure of watching a chorus line of tubas do the "Hokie Pokie" at the end of the third quarter.
This fall, though, the MVs will have to master a much more difficult routine. They have to help heal a community while they struggle with their own loss. Ryan "Stack" Clark, one of the 330 strong, was among the 32 people killed in the incomprehensible tragedy of April 16.
Unfortunately, that's why you're here.
"DAVE, THERE are bees in the tuba trailer." "They're coming out of the holes in the sides."
David McKee is making his Monday morning rounds when he gets this bit of news from drumline leaders Rob Curtin (fifth year; economics) and Adam Church (fourth year; agriculture). McKee has been the director of the MVs for 22 years, but this is a new one. Percussion and tubas are stored in three funky truck trailers next to the horticulture center overlooking the band's field, which it shares with the track program. Bees have taken advantage of holes that were drilled in the trucks' sides to secure the tuba racks.
It would be nice if VaTech had the same band facilities as, say, Penn State -- McKee actually has a PowerPoint in which he compares the Nittany Lions' spacious bathrooms with his Porta-Johns -- but what the heck. "I still have the greatest job in the world," he says. His office in the Squires Student Center is filled with framed tributes to all the bowl games the MVs have been to. A bass drum doubles as a coffee table. Over in the corner is a Dave McKee bobblehead. On his desk, a coaster reads, "What if the Hokie Pokie REALLY is what it's all about?"
On this, the first full day of camp, his office is a beehive of activity. He's just gotten word that Frank Beamer wants the band to play at the upcoming Saturday scrimmage. He plays a message from the mother of a high school drum major who wants to visit. He makes plans to take out his wife, Charlotte, for a 31st-anniversary dinner. He goes over the registration process with the band's personnel officer, Alison Wood (third year baritone; public and urban affairs/Spanish). He dispatches operations officer Brian Connell (fifth year trombone; engineering) and instruments officer Jason "Krusty" Christensen (third year tuba; mechanical engineering) to the hardware store to get bee spray. All between 8 and 9 o'clock.
Meetings follow: with the officers, with drum majors Jordan "Razor" Booker (third year; psychology/biochemistry) and Stephen Shelburne (third year; music), with the fraternity and sorority providing support this week, with the flag leadership. Every once in a while, McKee's cell phone goes off to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In." New arrivals and alumni pop in to say hi. He shows them, on his desktop, a news story about the new Marching Virginians uniforms, each with a tribute to Ryan Clark sewn inside.
The big drama of the day is the percussion cut: six of 39 must go. McKee, who was a drummer in a '70s rock band (ever hear of Cacapon?), and Will Petersen, the assistant band director, wander outside Squires to listen as Rob (snare) and Adam (tenors) put the drum line to the test. When they're done, McKee tells them, "Whether or not you make it, you should be proud you tried. If you don't make it, don't call Mom and tell her you're taking the next bus home. There are opportunities to play on this campus, and there's always next year."
The percussion leadership reconvenes in McKee's office and gives him their eight snares, five tenors, six basses, eight cymbals and six mallets (glockenspiels). Neither Dave nor Will second -- guesses the choices; they let band members decide who'll be posted on the list in the drum room. "I really like the stories of perseverance here," says Dave.
One of them is bass drum Tom "TMart" Martin (second year; geology), who volunteered to be a manager last year after he was cut: "I was down for two days, but I was happy they let me be a manager. I loved being part of the band, even if it was loading equipment or putting down yard markers. I played in a percussion ensemble and worked hard over the summer. I think I grew up a little. But it was still nerve-racking walking over to the list. To be honest, I'm more relieved than elated."
Tom asks if that's all. Yes, why? "Well, I thought you were talking to me because I went to Westfield High in Chantilly. That's where the shooter and two victims went. Him I didn't know. Erin Peterson and Reema Samaha I knew. I went to their funerals ... It was just really sad ... So, this was about me?"
"FOR OUR last show, we're going to do either West Side Story or Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Petersen runs down the fall schedule for the officers on Tuesday afternoon, and, judging from the groans and the cheers, Hokie Nation is more likely to hear "Freebird" than "I Feel Pretty" at halftime of the Miami game, on Nov. 17.
Will, a former tuba in the Indiana U. marching band, may be ample of girth, but he's light of spirit, and he and Dave make a fine good-cop/good-cop team. "The MVs are as much about leadership as they are about musicianship or marching," says Dave. "Sooner or later, the kids will get tired of hearing my voice. I want to make it later."
To that end, he's brought in outside leaders for a seminar: Clay Davis and Vic Stewart, two former MVs and successful business executives. Their theme is 212, the number of degrees at which water boils. "Too often people stop at 211, and all they get is hot water," says Davis. "One more degree, that little extra effort, gives you steam power."
Truth be told, the officers don't need much leadership help; they're naturals. The executive officer, Josh Seager (fifth year alto sax; mechanical engineering), wants to design roller coasters, though his people skills mark him for something grander. Brian Connell, operations officer and son of a retired Air Force colonel, wants to design prosthetics. There are future veterinarians, educators and rocket scientists in the band, not to mention a pilot, a bluegrass musician and a tap dancer. "You see why I love my job," says Dave. "Every kid's a winner."
Then there are the drum majors who conduct the MVs. Stephen Shelburne is country (Christiansburg, Va.), gregarious and a saxophone. Jordan Booker is city (Roanoke), reserved and a tuba. But they're utterly in sync with each other and the band. Talking about the difficulties of being sophomores who wrangle upperclassmen and grad students, they finish each other's sentences: "You should see some of the looks we get ... when we're trying to get them to play and they don't feel like it ... like when Georgia beat us in the Chick-fil-A Bowl."
Dave bursts with pride over them: "It's rare to have a sophomore drum major, and I had two last year. Jordan and Stephen were both magnificent, from the first day of camp to that day in Augusta."
That day in Augusta was April 21: Ryan Clark's memorial service at Lakeside High. More than 100 MVs went down to Georgia to honor him, and at the middle of the service, they played the soaring theme from Superman that they usually break out at the end of the game -- when lighter band members are held aloft. Jordan had to conduct it.
"I'm trying very hard to keep my composure," he recalls. "I look over to my left and see someone crying. I look over to my right and see more tears. So I look straight ahead and someone else is crying ... I look up and see Stack's name. That's when I lost it. But I knew if I started crying, everyone would. So I just conducted with my eyes closed." Jordan smiles at the memory.
"U of V A sounds like some bulls -- to me, to me/ U of V A sounds like some bulls -- to me."
Already looking shell -- shocked from registration and auditions, the rookies are in the Recital Hall, listening to the leadership sing a little ditty. While the song is ostensibly about the rival Cavaliers, it's really about raising the spirit level. The exec, Seager, calls, "Hi, rookies." When they come back with a weak "Hi, Josh," he calls, "Hi, old -- timers," and outmanned veterans give a rousing "Hi, Josh." Point made. After a slide show from PR officer Sarah Hangsleben (fifth year piccolo; interdisciplinary studies), McKee sends them off to a picnic on the MV field with "Show us what you've got."
One trombone's got a pair of bell bottoms from the '70s, not exactly suitable pants for the marching drills to follow. But Dave holds his tongue, letting Jordan and Stephen run the show.
"Tweereet, tweereet, tweet, tweet ... Ho." It's the standard call to attention. The drum majors run the rookies through commands. As the sun sets, the wind delivers a little gift from the dairy -- science barn, and the sections break off into individual drills. Well, all the sections except for the tubas.
They're doing the "Hokie Pokie." "YOU PUT your whole self in ..."
At the Thursday rehearsal in Cassell Coliseum, Alexandra Davis (fourth year tuba; music) and her beau, Brian Taylor (fourth year tuba; political science), demonstrate the steps and panache required for the "Hokie Pokie."
"And you shake yourself about ..." Put them in uniforms, drape 55-pound sousaphones around their necks and multiply by 11, and you can see why it's a crowd pleaser: the Rockettes meet Fantasia. "I first saw it when I was 5 years old," says Alexandra. "I've wanted to be a tuba ever since."
To those outside Hokie Nation, the "Hokie Pokie" might seem a turkey of a song, the province of party DJs of the last century. But back in 1980, then-band director James Sochinski decided it should be part of the MVs' repertory. So he wrote a neat arrangement and asked executive officer Bob White to choreograph a dance for the tuba section.
Bob, an electrical engineer who has a daughter, Taylor (third year trombone; geology), in the band, is also the unofficial photographer for the Marching Virginians, which is why he's known as Slide Show Bob. Anyway, Bob says, "The band tried other dances that didn't catch on, but when people saw the tubas do the 'Hokie Pokie' at halftime of the 1981 Peach Bowl, there was no turning back."
There is a deeper meaning to the song. "To be in the Marching Virginians," says treasurer Shannon Snyder (fifth year clarinet; animal and poultry sciences/agriculture and applied economics), "you have to throw yourself into it. Dave is constantly telling us to 'sell it' so people in the nosebleeds can see and hear us. You have to give of yourself."
And they do. They give their time: 15-hour days during band week, an hour-and-a-half rehearsal each weekday once classes start. They give their feet: Somebody figured out the MVs march more than 65,000 miles over the course of a season. Sometimes, they even give their health: Many are putting off medical procedures to march this fall.
It's Thursday night in the non-air-conditioned arena, and it's been a long day. The rookies have been marching and playing since 8 a.m. -- all except one trombone who overslept. The returning winds are back, having finished their auditions, and folding chairs cover the floor in successive arcs. Will and Dave may be jolly souls, but they're very serious about the music, and their conducting reflects it. They alternate numbers, and the band alternates the quality: Will's arrangement of Van Halen's "Jump" for the first game sounds great; the Ray Charles medley for the second game, uh, not so much. Frank Beamer (Hi, Frank!!!) stops by to thank the band for its support and to tell a story about his days as a trombone player.
Dave asks the band to play a special arrangement, by Sochinski, of "Amazing Grace." The majority of tunes played by the Marching Virginians were arranged by "Uncle Jim," who still teaches at Virginia Tech. "He's brilliant," Dave says, "and part of his brilliance is that you can play his music right away. Shortly after the tragedy, he showed me this arrangement and asked what I thought. Very powerful." Dave suggested it be played at Sunday's dedication of the memorial to the 32 victims.
The baritones, Stack's section, play lead, something they don't usually do. Other sections join, and you hear the familiar, beautiful strains. Two-thirds through come four eight-note tone clusters, dissonant bell tones. "At the first one, I was a little puzzled," Eric Mac Martin (fourth year trumpet; hospitality and tourism) says later. "But by the fourth, I got it: 8 x 4 = 32." The effect is absolutely wrenching, the sound of pain and loss. Then somehow, baritones leading the way, the harmony and majesty of the song are restored.
Faces all over are wet with tears. Dave immediately heads back to check on the baritones.
"I THINK he helped build Burruss Hall." That's Ali Wood, talking about Stack. Burruss Hall, the signature building on campus, was built in 1936.
It's about time you met Ryan Clark. If you read about him in the papers, you know he was killed coming to the aid of Emily Hilscher on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, where he was an R.A. He worked for eight summers at Camp Big Heart, in Winder, Ga., with mentally impaired kids. He maintained a 4.0 GPA in three majors (psychology, biology and English) and planned to pursue a doctorate in psychology, with a focus on cognitive neuroscience. He played baritone in the Marching Virginians and was their personnel officer.
Taken by themselves, his accomplishments are impressive. But they only begin to tell his story. Who better to tell the rest of it than the V-Tones?
They've gathered on the track, happy to remember Stack, happy to get out of a drill: Ali, Mike Overson, Jim Stiegler, Steve Wilmoth, Alex Yates, Casey Link, Will Gerig, Patrick Murphy, Eric Tobin, Tom Wampler, Shelley Naperkoski, Shadie Tanious.
"Remember when we went to the Dollar Store for Meet the Band and Stack found these ribbons with silly sayings on them? ... One of them said LIVING FOSSIL, which he thought was perfect for a fifth year like him ... We laughed so hard we got kicked out of the store ... Sometimes, you'd be playing at a game and look over and he was gone, then you'd see him talking to a friend or one of the alumni ... I don't know how he did it -- triple major, 4.0, pep band, Circle K, and I never saw him work ... That's because he never went to sleep ... Hey, what about the Stupid Ninja Game? ... Yeah, we get in a circle and make up stupid ninja moves ... Stack loved that game ... Most of all, I miss his laugh, a screech, really ... You could hear him clear across campus ... He was so much a part of this place ... I think he helped build Burruss Hall."
You can see why the baritones are considered the free spirits of the band. And why Stack was considered the freest of them all.
Every section has a distinct personality. The trumpets are the heroes -- and most likely to wear Abercrombie. The saxophones are jocks, and their "Fear the Sax" T-shirts refer to the way they get in the faces of opposing players. Clarinets: calm and logical. Horns: loud. Piccolos: nice, if a little highstrung. Percussionists: straight out of Top Gun. Trombones: funny (you should see them do the Bone Burro on the march to Lane Stadium). Tubas: fun (they tape their nicknames to their instrument bells -- Burp, Goose, Playboy, Hambone, Levis, Sitta, Wallace, Krusty, Natty, Seabass).
Finalizing who is going to be in those sections isn't easy. Friday is a bear to begin with, a virtual five-a-day (marching, rehearsal, rehearsal, marching, rehearsal), but it ends at 10 p.m. with the cuts. Now, cuts aren't the end of the world. Dave likes to point out that Shannon Snyder, the treasurer, tried out as an alto sax and a piccolo before finally making the MVs as a clarinet. But some 80 musicians will have to go this year, more than normal.
Dave too is auditioning. The administration is concerned that "Amazing Grace" has religious overtones, so a representative stops by Cassell Coliseum to hear the arrangement. The MV repertoire is eclectic -- they do Fred Waring and Aerosmith. Tonight, they switch gears from "Jump" to John Newton's 18th-century hymn. And nail it.
At 10, as the band plays the Superman theme, Wood and Seager walk over to a wall and put up the lists. At the end of the song, Dave tells the MVs, "This has been a difficult day. If you're not part of the 2007 Marching Virginians, don't give up. Email me if you want to be a manager. Try again next year."
Slowly, the musicians stack their chairs and wander to the wall. There are no histrionics, no cheers or open weeping. Cellphone calls home for those who made it. Hugs for those who didn't. (The trombone in bell-bottoms is on the list; the one who was late is not.) Krusty collects the instruments from the rejected. "One of them went to my high school," he says. "I wish we were 400."
"CONGRATULATIONS, Mr. Laffoon, you have no idea." It's Saturday morning, and Dave and Will are sitting in beach chairs on the track, looking up at the sections spread across the hill for Meet the Band. Each of the MVs is introduced by Dave with some knowing or funny comment, and they come down to get a T-shirt designed by Jennifer Kane (third year piccolo; math), which reads: "330 Sets of Hands Relying on Each Other."
Mr. Laffoon is Daniel Laffoon (fifth year tenor sax; computer engineering), and he's just married Christine Bychowski (sixth year clarinet; elementary education), giving Dave his first married MV couple. (Many have married after school.) Daniel and Christine cut their honeymoon short for band camp.
As the V-Tones come down the hill, they reassemble on the track, form a circle and begin the Stupid Ninja Game, passing on one outrageous move after another to the next member. It's aptly named and fairly hysterical, but the best thing is the three new V-Tones already have it down.
Before the scrimmage, the MVs gather at the trailers for the march to the stadium. There's graffiti inside one of the trucks: ELVIS HAS LEFT THE TRAILER/TUBA CHICKS KICK ASS/CAN I SLEEP ON YOUR FLOOR? MINE WON'T STOP SPINNING. No sign of bees. An orange butterfly flutters by. Honest.
With the tubas leading the charge, the Marching Virginians march into Lane Stadium. All week they've played in a vacuum, but now they're performing for Hokie Nation, and they love it. The fans love them back. You see the smiles on the faces of kids and grown-ups, students and workers, and you know why the band is known as "The Spirit of Tech."
Divided into white and maroon for offense and defense, band members file into their customary seats at the north end of the stadium. They play their customary tunes and "spirit spots," although it's tough to coordinate music to a scrimmage. (On gamedays, a call from the booth tells the band when breaks in the action will permit them to play.) Jordan almost gets clocked by an errant field goal attempt. At one point, a defensive coach wants the drum line to stop so he can be heard. "Good luck trying that in a game," says Dave. Many of the 14,000 fans wander over to the north end because, frankly, the band is more entertaining than the football. At least more energetic. After the scrimmage, as the band files out, a little boy says, "Bye-bye, tubas. Bye-bye, drums. Bye-bye, xylophones."
Time for dinner on the MV field. Dave has dipped into his budget for catered steak and fixin's and real silverware with cloth napkins. (For vegetarians, Charlotte has made lasagna.) Dave is pleased: The cuts are over ("I got 35 emails telling me they'd try again next year"), and "Amazing Grace" has been approved to end tomorrow's dedication.
The picnic over, the MVs relearn the basic VT logo formation and rehearse "Moonlight and VPI" for the dedication. Then a hush falls. Ryan Clark's mother, Letitie, here for Sunday's ceremony, has climbed the tower to watch them perform, joined by other family, including Ryan's sister, Nadia.
Dave turns to them and says simply, "There's a lot of love on this field for Ryan. And we'd like to play this for you in his honor." He motions the baritones to come forward, and they play "Amazing Grace" through tears. The Clarks, too, are crying. And applauding.
"WE WILL prevail."
Those words, spoken by poet and professor Nikki Giovanni on April 17, are repeated by Tom Tillar, the vice president for alumni relations, speaking at the dedication of the April 16 memorial in front of Burruss Hall.
It's a moving ceremony that begins with the national anthem played by the Highty-Tighties, a Corps of Cadets marching band that also lost one of its own, Matthew La Porte. There are speeches and the school alma mater. Thirty-two temporary Hokie Stones laid in the victims' honor are replaced by permanent limestone blocks, and a bell chimes as each original is presented to the families. When Stack's stone is presented, Dave grabs the baritones' hands.
You look around at the Marching Virginians, these remarkable young people who juggle books and band and a nightmare, at Brian and Krusty and Natalie Madeja (third year tuba; math), at Sarah and Ali and Shelley and Tom and Shadie, at Jessica Johnson (sixth year percussion; MBA) and Jordan and Stephen and Josh ... and you know they're going to be all right. You know we're going to be all right.
As the crowd disperses, the MVs play "Amazing Grace." They get through it, as they will every time. Heads bowed, they hold hands. Then they raise their heads and hold their hands aloft.
That's what it's all about.