Nine years out of high school, I can still remember those Friday night lights.
The cheerleaders' voices echoing through downtown Kingman. The smack and thud of helmets and pads. The smell of the evening dew soaking the field, which just barely glistened under the amber lights. I remember those lights so well, and how I could feel them shining down during those cool autumn nights.
Back then, Kingman High School had games at the south campus (now the field for Lee Williams High), with the old wooden bleachers that creaked under the weight of the crowd. It wasn't as wide as the rebuilt bleachers are now, and so the crowd noise was concentrated right in the middle of the field. It created empty space - dark pockets in the corners of the field that absorbed light and sound.
Sound was so important to me because I wasn't a football player. I was in the marching band.
The band always felt like a second thought. The football team shuffled into the locker rooms at halftime, and that was usually the cue for spectators to hit up the snack bar. We never had a rivalry with the cheer squad, but we knew that many nights they were the stars of halftime. They had the popularity and clout day in and day out and we ... well, we were nerds, just before nerds started being cool.
It's not the kids marching who were misunderstood; it was the marching band world in general. Most people thought we were there only to pep up the crowd. I always argue that marching band is a sport just like any other. It takes endurance to haul a 20-pound sousaphone up and down the field for 10 minutes, barely getting a breath in because you're busy playing.
In sports they talk about striving for perfection. Marching band requires it. Friday nights were practice grounds for competition. We work out kinks at home and prepared for three or four Saturdays in the fall when we traveled out of town to compete.
A marching band competition is surreal, both for participants and spectators alike. Bands are filed onto the field one after the other, often 20 or 30 bands on any given Saturday. They each have 15 minutes to set up the field, perform, and leave. Judges sit in the booths and, in some cases, run around the field looking at all kinds of criteria: musical difficulty, sound, posture, formations, uniformity (if everyone is in step, moving as one), visual performance, color guard.
All the pieces are up for scrutiny, and that's why a band will perform the same show over and over again. Music has to be memorized and sound great, which is hard when a grass field and a stadium of spectators 100 feet away absorb and bounce sound in every direction. Movements have to be together and precise; someone out of step or missing in a formation can throw everything off.
That kind of coordination forces marchers to be "in it" the entire duration of a performance. Near-perfect performances are rare, and when they happen you never forget them.
I remember ours. It was my senior year, right before KHS switched from the infamous banana suits to the blue and gold we see today. We didn't have hats, as most of our plastic cowboy hats were broken. We looked, by far, like the most penniless rag-tag band that year.
We were marching in the Agua Fria Invitational, a newer marching competition. By that point, we had already qualified for the state competition and were just looking to improve our performance and scores.
October in Phoenix is still hot, and even though we had an evening performance, we were sweating under those thick banana suits. Ours was a jazz show, and the music was loud and in your face. That meant that we had to exert more energy than normal, and more often than not we walked off the field absolutely spent.
Our director led us into the warm-up area: a high school courtyard that shielded our sound from the bands performing on the field. The sun was starting to set, lighting the sky ablaze with a sea of orange and red.
He was out of character that day. Because we already qualified, he just wanted to run the music of the show to get our tuning and sound right. The band circled around him and his assistants, and we began to play.
Our sound that day, for a band of 70-something, was incredible. It's one thing to play loud, but to play precisely and emotionally with ups and downs in the music was something we kept missing. That day, we had it all.
After the last hit from the horns echoed off of the school and we snapped our instruments down, the entire band stared at him and waited on his notes. A band director always has something to say; it stems from that never-ending drive for perfection. All he had for us was a smile, a nod of approval, and his classic "save your chops" advice.
We marched on that field with all the swagger of Mountain Ridge and Sandra Day O'Connor and all the rich D-1 schools, and we sounded good. We hit every note, every beat with precision. The judges and audiences noticed, and that hot autumn night we walked away from Agua Fria with the highest rating possible: Superior with Distinction (superior rating in all categories).
My high school memories are saturated with time spent with the marching band. I never really counted the trophies or recognition, nor were those my most vivid memories. What I remember most were those nights spent at the south campus, playing to the home crowd at halftime under those lights. And while I always believe that the best days are always yet to come, it never hurts to bask in nostalgia when I watch my alma mater take the field.