Fall, the bands start marching


Fall is just around the corner, which means … it’s marching band season. (Or, that’s what it should mean.)

A recent study of the brains of 111 former NFL players found Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (brain damage from repeated contact).in all but one. In a wider examination, not just professional players, 87% showed signs of CTE. And while the NFL disputed the 1998 book, a pair of authors used police reports and legal records to show as many as 21% of players had criminal records. Maybe it’s time we found a new athletic passion, one not so obsessed with violence. I have a suggestion…

I’m typing this from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home of the annual Drum Corps International (DCI) championships. (They said a guy named Peyton played here, too?) I’m here as an old football fan, but I sat through seven hours of marching band shows yesterday, and I’m here again for another full day of it. This is the thrilling culmination of an exhausting summer for our younger son. Eleven weeks of athletic training will do that for you. He marched and played his horn all summer, got all the thrill and benefit of being on a sports team – and not a single concussion.

Bennett is spending his summer competing with “Spirit of Atlanta” drum and bugle corps before heading off to Furman University. “Spirit” competes as a DCI corps, which is the NFL of drum corps organizations. He has been involved in sports since he could walk, most recently as a catcher for high school and club baseball teams, so he thought he knew hard work and heat.

Then he met DCI.

Last October, he made the first of six trips to Atlanta, along with 500 other athletic musicians. Each month presented new, intense auditions for the 150 drill spots, and each week in between required additional auditions: a playing audio, a marching (or dancing) video, a log from his “Map My Run” iphone app, verifying that he’d run at least 18 miles that week (after school and baseball practice were over!).

Making the corps was thrilling, though his “contract” required leaving home three weeks before graduation. His mama wasn’t happy about that, but on May 25th we delivered her “baby” to an Atlanta high school, and until the day before he enters Furman, a gym floor will be his bed and he will share various school locker rooms with about 95 sweaty guys. For those first five weeks of practice they began at 8 a.m. and didn’t’ quit until 10 p.m. – seven days a week, outside in the Atlanta heat and humidity. They finished one of their first practices by running a 5k. (Yes, after 13 hours they ran 3.2 miles, at 9 p.m.!)

If you are still thinking “– but marching band is for sissies,” you’ve obviously never seen a DCI corps in action. The precision is hard to describe. The musicianship rivals any you’ll ever hear – and the athleticism requires as much strength and more discipline than any sport Bennett has ever played.

If you’ve never played a wind instrument, you may not understand. I marched for eight high school and college seasons, and I don’t understand it! I watch in disbelief as players RUN between nearly every set of an 11- minute show, often 20 or 30 yards at a time, only to snap a horn in place and nail a “high C” with clarity and the volume of a freight train (or a crisp, beautiful mezzo piano!). They play in all sorts of awkward body positions: lean right, twist backwards, Swedish plank, left side! Bennett plays the trumpet, but the drill is no easier for tuba players or the gal running around with that massive bass drum.

This 30-state, all-summer experience has been incredible. He has benefited from a military-inspired discipline and the camaraderie and cooperation of an athletic team, but this team has made art and music. There’s all the conditioning and cooperation and competition of a good athletic contest, and all the power and agility and flexibility and coordination required of an athletic body, but there are no fights midfield, no injury time-outs, no aggression bleeding over into domestic violence, and no brain injuries leaving grief and confusion in its wake.

I’m proud that Bennett will continue his athletic career in college, and his mom and I are buying season tickets for all the Paladin Regiment home games. I think the football team will be playing, too – but the band is the way to go. Discipline a body. Save a brain.


Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He co-pastors Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte with his wife, Rev. Amy Dean, a native of Clinton and also a graduate of CHS.)

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