Drive and Eat a Rock

The first UW home football game of each season also is the opener for the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, the world’s finest college marching band. (How the UW Band has not gotten the Sudler Trophy, which is to honor the country’s premier college marching bands, is beyond my comprehension.)

I know this because I am an alumnus of the UW Band. I played five years (in the last rank of the band, Rank 25, motto: “Where Men Are Tall and Run-On Is Short”), marching in 39 football games at Camp Randall Stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois (worst artificial turf I had ever seen), the University of Nevada–Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, the former Dyche Stadium at Northwestern University, five high school fields and, in my one bowl game, Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., site of the 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl.

The UW Band was, without question, the most memorable experience of my college days, and one of the most meaningful experiences of my lifetime.

It was the most physical experience of my lifetime, to be sure. Fifteen minutes into my first Registration Week practice, I thought I was going to die. Fifteen minutes later, death seemed preferable to continuing practice, and this was the first of six marching practices and two music practices over the next four hot, humid and dusty days.

(As strenuous as that sounds, the schedule is tougher now — they now have three rehearsals a day during the week before classes begin.)

A typical football game’s band schedule, including who knows how many repetitions of “On Wisconsin,” will feature a pregame performance at Union South before their march to Camp Randall’s north-side tunnel. There is no experience quite like double-time marching out of the tunnel into a full Camp Randall Stadium, with 80,000 or so fans cheering and clapping in semi-unison for (it seems) you. (For that matter, there is no experience quite like being booed by 105,000 Michigan fans either.) After their halftime performance comes, win or lose, the famous Fifth Quarter, the march back to the Humanities Building, and the unseen-by-the-public dismissal.
UW Band at Lambeau Field in 2007
It is not a boast to say that the UW Band has tremendously benefited the UW athletic program. Many people have been quoted as saying, during Wisconsin’s football doldrums of the late ’80s, that they went to football games to see the band, not the football team. (Six wins in three years will instill that attitude.) Wisconsin has gotten some bowl game invitations because, whether the football team was exactly worthy of the invitation, bowl game organizers know that a large contingent of Badger fans comes along, some of whom to follow the band. The band’s schedule in a typical year includes, besides all the UW home games, one high school game, a road trip and, assuming the football team cooperates, another bowl game. (The Rose Bowl earlier this year.)

The band has been described more than once as having an organizational sense of humor. (For instance, every band bus driver is named “Bob.” Now that the band flies to bowl games, the pilots are all “Bob” too.) In one show around Halloween, we were told we could do whatever we wanted marching-wise, as long as it was within correct style and as long as we got back to our spot by the 72nd note of what we were playing — John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell,” which you know was the theme song for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Another show featured Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” in which we formed an old player piano, with the drum major hitting the side of the player piano when it — that is, we — got stuck on the music. Another show featured alternative versions of “On Wisconsin,” including a German waltz (“On Wisconsin” in 3/4 time is an interesting experience), a Mandarin version (during a concert someone in the band did a samurai yell only the band could hear one beat before it was supposed to start, which incapacitated half of the band), and a traditional Russian knee-bending dance.

The ringleader of all this is the dynamo named Michael Leckrone (at this point band members and alumni are to yell: “WHO?” — inside joke), director of the band since 1969, back in the days when the Badger football team was hideous (the Badgers were nearing the end of a 23-game winless streak), the Vietnam War was going on, and students were generally disinterested in anything remotely military, including marching band. (Since I graduated in 1988, I can be said to have come from the first half of Leckrone’s term at UW.) Today, nearly 40 years later, the Badgers have three Rose Bowl wins (three more than they had when Leckrone arrived) and get bowl berths almost every year, Camp Randall is packed every game, and Leckrone is still there, doing all the show-writing and music-arranging himself.

One of the most unnerving things about playing in the UW Band is that Leckrone seems to have total recall of names, which is not insignificant when you direct 250 band members. Many a freshman has remarked how Leckrone knew his or her name within a day of the first practice. That, of course, gets reinforced when the PA system at the band’s practice field (which is now getting its own artificial grass surface just like Camp Randall’s) amplifies Leckrone’s voice: “MOVE SIX INCHES TO YOUR LEFT, PRESTEGARD!”

I was just an average marcher (seeing as how I completely lack athletic talent), but I worked hard at it. Leckrone said as much when he ran into my father at an athletic booster function my second year at UW and told him, “I wish everybody in the band worked as hard as he does.” I also played loudly and with the correct staccato spacing (the effect is better in big areas like stadiums); I know Leckrone noticed this because, when he wasn’t happy with how the band sounded in practice, he would have a few people in each instrument group, including me, stop playing so that others would be compelled to play louder and better.

Like similar groups, the UW Band has its own culture, complete with its own vocabulary (to “eat a rock” is an appeal to one’s toughness) and traditions, including skyrockets and the Strieby Award, given at the annual Marching Band banquet to the best “error that is made with style and authority.”

Leckrone (whose numerous honors include having his own bobblehead and cow) has a conditioning exercise called a “countdown.” The standard model is to march 50 yards ahead, then turn around and march 45 yards back, then turn around and march 40 yards back, and so on until the last five-yard march — 275 yards of nonstop marching. At the last practice before leaving for the 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl, Leckrone jammed everyone up into one end of Camp Randall, and then announced a 100-yard countdown — 1,050 yards, or 50 yards shorter than four countdowns. By the end of each football season, I was in good enough shape to run the Boston Marathon.

I used to describe being in the UW Band as a mix between being in Reserve Officers Training Corps, an athletic team, and a fraternity. Today, I’d probably add the word “cult” to the description.

Those who never marched don’t realize the feat that marching — constant movement, either in place or marching along with a line of other marchers, constantly watching to the front or either side to make sure you’re in alignment, while playing the entire time — is when one gets to the level of a college marching band. And like athletic teams, we had an eye in the sky — films of each band show, errors revealed in which were noted in the following week’s “Dummy List.” I made enough appearances on that list as it was, but I got an extra mention after a nationally televised Michigan–Wisconsin football game in 1986, because, since I was a rank leader and thus in the front of the band, I had several seconds of exclusive national air time. That week’s Dummy List, which Leckrone compiled, included me for getting more air time than he had.

(That was, I should point out, my second national TV appearance. The first was at the end of a segment of the late CNN Sports Play of the Day, given to the game-winning shot in a Wisconsin men’s basketball home loss to Illinois in January 1987. The CNN editor rolled the video, shot from the opposite UW Fieldhouse end zone to include the entire band, forward from when the Illinois player sank the buzzer-beater just far enough to see me throw my hands up in the air and say a word that rhymes with “luck.”)

The photo in the snow is from the last game of the 1985 season, played, as you can see, in heavy snow. (I’m in the diagonal part of the N, toward the bottom.) The snow wasn’t there during pregame practice, but when we got onto the field for pregame, it was a sea of white, requiring everyone to guide based on where the person on any side was (as you’re marching, that would be in front and to the left and right.) Looking at the field, you can see our perfect 2½-yard spacing despite the lack of visible yard lines. (We did better than the Badger football team did; they lost 41–7.)

Even with all the hoopla of football, basketball and hockey games and the big spring Kohl Center concert (which started as one night, and now is three), I always enjoyed the smaller appearances — playing concerts where people had never seen the band before then. The look in the eyes of the crowd when the jet-engine-volume blast of the beginning of “On Wisconsin” hit them was priceless. A group of us once got a standing ovation from Cudahy High School students for … playing a B-flat concert scale at them during a high school football game. We also played at the annual Lake Mills Volunteer Fire Department parade. (The directions I was given were: Take Interstate 94 to the Wisconsin 89 exit, take 89 south to Lake Mills, turn left, and find the house with the quarter-barrel on the front lawn. And get there by 9 a.m.) We did our usual parade shtick, and then, while waiting for lunch, two people came over with large trophies for our winning the parade competition … a parade competition we didn’t know we had entered.

At the last concert I played, in 1988, Leckrone walked past my mother, who was wearing the “My son plays in the Wisconsin Band” shirt my father had had made for her five years earlier. He read what the shirt said, then added, “I hear he’s not very good.” (I always wanted to be a punchline.)

The band did leave a few scars. I had tendinitis in one of my feet from, I imagine, pointing toes. My knees ache from time to time from marching on hard ground and old-style unpadded artificial turf. (That’s a better explanation than, say, my being overweight.) I’m pretty sure I lost hearing from the experience. (What?)

Besides having the most fun I had had in my life to that point, and probably since then, I learned the sorts of things that high school athletes learn, but I didn’t, since I played from the bench — teamwork, discipline, the value of excellence whether noticed or not, and the need to focus on the next thing after your latest accomplishment.

The impact the UW Band had on me extends to my subconscious. Most people who went to college probably have had the dream in which you’re having an exam you forgot about and thus for which you’re not prepared. My recurring dream (which I get in the fall) is that I find myself back in the band (why the band would need a 45-year-old trumpet player is for you to decide) with a game to march in that night, having neither read nor practiced neither the music nor the marching directions. (I’m sure there’s some deep psychological thing there, but I’m not going to find out what it is.)

If you have tickets to Badger games or have the chance to watch Wisconsin on the Big Ten Network, ABC or ESPN, make sure you watch the band because, as someone once said, when you say Wisconsin (Band), you’ve said it all.

Photos and music courtesy the University of Wisconsin Marching Band. On Wisconsin.

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