Seven hours before kickoff, Nate MacMaster sits on a folding chair in the foyer of the Ohio State University Marching Band Center. The complex forms part of Ohio Stadium’s outer shell, a monument to marketing ambition that expanded capacity to 105,000 in 2001. MacMaster, the band’s drum major responsible for leading the group through its drills, is stripped to a T-shirt, breeches rolled up to his thigh, unwinding an Ace bandage down the length of his shin. “Stress fractures,” he explains. “You get them from strutting, especially in the practices before tryouts. Having long legs makes it worse — puts more stress on your body. But the strut wins the tryout. Anyone can twirl the baton or do tricks, but it takes a man to strut.”
Cory Faist emerges half-ready from the sousaphone storage room, clad in a jacket and trousers a bruised navy so dark it looks black. A bulge above one shoe, where a brace encases an ankle he sprained during summer tryouts, breaks the otherwise clean lines of his uniform. He pulls back the sweat shield in his marching band cap to reveal two photographs. “These are my grandfathers,” he says. “My mom’s dad died before my first concert in middle school, back when I was still playing trumpet. He was a lifelong Buckeye fan. Before he died, I promised him I would be in the Ohio State marching band. I just remember he smiled and said, ‘Of course you will.'” Faist blinks away a tear from his blue eyes. “It means everything. Especially today.”
Today is when Faist and MacMaster will be mutually responsible for the finishing touches on Script Ohio, the band’s signature formation and, in this Ohioan’s humble opinion, one of the most impressive examples of American folk art in existence. The band marches in a tight pulsing coil that slowly unspools along the sideline as the members release into a single-file line, spelling out “Ohio” in flowing cursive. For the exultant finale, the drum major (MacMaster) leads one sousaphone player (Faist) from the ring of the small “o” to three yards above the “i,” where the horn player plants himself, theatrically doffs his hat, and takes a deep bow. Only senior sousaphone players get to dot the “i,” the capstone achievement of four years in the band. When the formation finishes, the effervescent ecstasy of 100,000 voices in the crowd can, in one breath, bring you to the sublime release so many fans seek in college football on Saturdays.
Marching bands have long been central to the experience of college football. The best ones, however, offer more than between-down entertainment. The University of Southern California regularly performs with rock artists like Fleetwood Mac and Radiohead. At the Rose Bowl last week against Iowa, members of Stanford’s band, famous for acts of political subversion, dressed up as a giant cow to mock its opponent’s corn belt roots. But the Ohio State University Marching Band is unrivaled in its combination of technical skill and homegrown devotion. Founded in 1878, it is older than the football program and got its immortal nickname — “The Best Damn Band in the Land” — from the team’s legendary coach, Woody Hayes, which, in Ohio, is equivalent to being anointed by Jesus Christ himself. The band is made of yesterdays; its history is Ohio’s identity.
It’s also the only marching band in America that’s Internet famous. Beginning in 2012, the band transformed from a provincial institution into a national phenomenon through wildly imaginative halftime shows featuring animated formations that went viral on YouTube: a moonwalking Michael Jackson (12 million views), a hungry Pac-Man (17.4 million), and a stalking T-Rex (19 million). It arguably became as prominent as the football team itself, at least within Ohio State’s football-commercial complex, with members making appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, and an Apple commercial.
Then, almost simultaneously, scandal tarnished the band’s growing fame. In July 2014, Ohio State released a damning internal investigation into the band’s culture. The report described band behaviors that might sound familiar to any fan of National Lampoon movies, like a road ritual called “roller bus,” where band members raced down the aisle of their away-game charters while other members tried to tackle them, or a complex maneuver named the “flying 69,” which the report struggles to describe, but definitely ended with two band members’ faces in one another’s crotches. Then there were rookie nicknames for first-year members, things like “Tits McGee,” “Triple Crown,” “Twinkle Dick,” and “Doctor Faggot.” (For anyone curious about the meanings of these names, the report cites Urban Dictionary.)
Aside from salacious details, the report, along with a follow-up investigation, uncovered cases of sexual harassment and assault within the band, and suggested band leadership could have done more to prevent both. The news made national headlines, ignited a local furor in Columbus, and cost the band’s pioneering director, Jon Waters, his job.
As part of its reform, the university administration took control of the group, expanding mandatory seminars on alcohol abuse and sexual harassment and strictly monitoring the behavior of its members. Ohio State faced a serious problem and reacted seriously. But the broader consequences of the band’s makeover linger. While sexual assault scandals have upended campus life from Columbia to North Carolina and shaken college football programs from Notre Dame to Florida State, the Ohio State University Marching Band stands out as a voluntary student organization, where what matters most is not future success, wealth or fame, but friends, memories and the chance to indulge peculiar enthusiasms. How does this group of kids, once entrusted to carry on a cherished tradition, recover from feeling they were described as perverts by their own university?
“The hardest part about last year for us was the hurt we felt when we saw this organization we loved so much go through the mud like that,” MacMaster tells me. “I read the report when it came out, and I thought, ‘I don’t even know this band,’ because it’s just not who we are. We love this band. And we kind of came together and decided we could control how we’re represented from now on. That’s the only way we could cope with what happened.”
Before Ohio State fired him as band director in 2014, Jon Waters had spent his entire adult life with the marching band. He played sousaphone as an undergraduate (he remembers the exact date he dotted the “i”: November 21, 1998, at home against Michigan) then worked as a graduate assistant and assistant director before becoming boss in 2012. “I knew that when I took over the Ohio State band, the number one problem facing the band was relevance,” Waters says. “In the, shall we say, good old days, there were only two sources of sound in the stadium: a crackling PA announcer and the band. Then you have the advent of the Jumbotron and canned music and advertising. Halftime shows for the band used to be twelve or fourteen minutes long. Today they’re seven, because there’s always a presentation, an honoring of some sponsor by throwing a Frisbee through a hoop to win a car.”
To make the band relevant again, Waters wanted to take back the halftime show. Most marching bands use static patterns, where marchers act as human dots in the outline of rudimentary shapes, occasionally scattering like ants to form new ones. At the beginning of his tenure as director, Waters closed his eyes and imagined massive likenesses of cultural icons — Disney characters, pop singers and movie stars — that didn’t break apart when performers marched, but moved along with them. For extra effect, performances would include special sound effects and fireworks. The marching band wouldn’t just play. It would conquer halftime with overwhelming spectacles.
Waters looks like a youth minister, with a Mayberry haircut and elongated glass frames that make his head look wider than it is. We sit in a darkening Starbucks at the edge of Columbus’s unfolding sprawl. His quiet voice belies a disposition so self-assured it can seem cocky, a kind of quiet intensity that often erupted in his exuberant conducting style. “There were times, especially night games, when I could feel the energy from the crowd and the band giving the energy right back,” he says. “It was a magical period. It really was.”
Waters’ genius revealed itself for the first time in October 2012 during a halftime tribute to classic video games. Watching the clip of that show now, one doesn’t notice the sound of the music as much as that of the crowd progressively stupefied into wonderment. At first, the audience cheers politely as the band marches into a simple picture of Pikachu from Pokemon. Then, as it forms the familiar polygons from Tetris, marching so that the shapes start stacking, the crowd yells wildly. By the time the ensemble forms Zelda’s horse Epona, which appears to gallop downfield, the crowd answers at first with awesome silence, then erupts into a boundless, uncomprehending roar.
“The first time we saw a video of the horse moving during rehearsal, we all started yelling. Like, ‘Oh my God!'” Faist remembers. “We didn’t know the formation would do that.” The group was still using paper printouts to map its formations, meaning each week, every member received a still image of each formation the band would make during halftime, as well as a guide of where he or she stood in it. But those pages did not tell each player how to get from point A to point B. Instead, Waters had to tell the troop how to transition from picture to picture — only he could imagine how the animation worked.
Everything seemed to fall into place at the start of Waters’ second season as band director in 2013. He had petitioned the president’s office for more money from the start, but the growing significance of his revamped marching corps brought a windfall: a new million-dollar budget — nearly ten times the previous year’s budget of $125,000. The sudden largesse was refreshing for a program that had often fended for itself. “I remember days when there was no toilet paper in the band center,” says Ryan Barta, a former trumpet squad leader who graduated in December 2014. With the new money, students no longer had to pay to dry-clean their own uniforms or buy supplies to clean their instruments.
An additional grant from the university provided 45 iPads for Waters to disseminate drills each week. In addition to saving thousands of sheets of paper that year, the iPads allowed every band member to see the animations as they appeared in Waters’ brain and track their individual movements within them. In October, the band unveiled its famous tributes to Michael Jackson and Hollywood, and Waters’ office was soon inundated with press requests. “When Apple called about putting us in an ad, it dawned on me we were doing something special,” Waters says. “It no longer had anything to do with the connection to the football team.”
At the same time, the band’s growing fame only made it an even more crucial part of Ohio State’s marketing and fundraising operations. One of its duties had long been performing at alumni functions, where unpaid student musicians played to solicit donations. (This year, Ohio State started remunerating members hired for these functions.) But by fall 2013, as additional money poured in from a sponsorship deal with Nationwide Insurance, Waters had to answer to Ohio State’s Fan Experience and Promotions Team, a marketing arm of the athletic department whose mission statement includes two game-day traditions that originated with the band: “The goal is always to leave the fan wanting to return to the site where they first witnessed Script Ohio, sang ‘Carmen Ohio,’ or simply made a fine catch in the halftime T-shirt toss.”
According to Waters, the band increasingly had to compete with other elements of the Fan Experience, the blaring pop music and sponsor interests he believes are submerging modern college football. “The band is just used as a marketing tool, now, for the university,” he says. “They treat it like a mechanical thing where you push ‘play,’ and out marches the band, it does Script Ohio, and it goes away.” At the groups Skull Sessions, massively popular public performances held two hours before home kickoffs, front-row seats formerly held for parents were turned into reserved seating for the guests of IMG, Ohio State’s marketing contractor. During timeouts at the actual games, an athletics department representative with a radio connection to the AV booth would cut off the band so songs like Pitbull’s “Timber” could play over the loudspeakers. “I felt there is an identity crisis at Ohio State as well as at other universities,” Waters says. “The crisis is this: are we going to have a collegiate sports atmosphere or are we a pro sports atmosphere?”
The Ohio State Marching Band occupies a strange place in the landscape of contemporary higher education, marking the nexus of big-time athletics’ expanding frontier, the battleground for sexual equality and safety on campus, and a tradition of crude antics that many students regard as a hallmark of college experience. Waters worked among its ranks for over 15 years. He knew its saltiest conventions as well as anyone. Part of his effort to reform the band, he says, included urging band members to go “easy on the offensive nicknames” and abandon certain traditions like flipping off a famous banner at Michigan games. He waged an internal campaign of moral suasion, rather than outlawing questionable behavior entirely. “I used this analogy a lot: I’m holding up a mirror for all of us to look into, and I would say, ‘Is this really appropriate behavior?'” Waters says. “That always broke the ice. They’d say, you know, ‘I mean, I guess you’re right.'”
In May 2014, as Waters prepared for his third season, a parent complained to Ohio State about sexual misconduct in the group. Earlier that same month, the US Department of Education listed Ohio State among schools being investigated for violating federal laws by mishandling sexual assault and harassment claims. In this atmosphere of suspicion, the school could not ignore potentially catastrophic allegations against one of its marquee student programs. It launched an internal investigation, interviewing twelve current and former band members about band traditions and behaviors stretching back decades. (Ohio State claims it was never under investigation by the Department of Education, but appeared on the list due to its earlier participation in a voluntary compliance review.)
The report, submitted to the DOE and released publically online and through the media, was devastating. According to its writers, alcohol abuse pervaded the band. Senior members routinely hazed rookies by forcing them to march in their underwear or perform humiliating “tricks,” like compelling one woman to perform a lap dance on her brother. New members were also expected “to either place a condom on a banana, place a banana in his or her mouth and place a condom on it, or place a banana between a graduate assistant’s legs and place a condom on the banana.” A challenge called “Find Mr. Big” involved searching for a dildo hidden on the band’s buses to away games. A secret songbook circulated among the musicians, including songs disparaging women and gay men.
Even more troubling, according to the report, the unpoliced atmosphere precipitated two separate incidents of sexual abuse. In the spring of 2013, a female band member reported to Waters that a male student had sexually harassed her, and Waters tried to bar both of them from traveling to away games, a potential violation of federal laws meant to protect victims. Later that year, the Student Conduct office expelled a male band member for an off-campus sexual assault. The report alleged Waters should have been aware of these issues, but did nothing substantive to stop them. The university fired Waters immediately.
“I saw the report for the first time after the provost said, ‘Either resign or be fired,'” Waters says. “Somebody told me to be sure I don’t talk to anyone, don’t talk to any donors, and ‘Give me your keys, and you’re done.'” Waters’ magic ride was over. So was the Department of Education’s investigation into Ohio State. Specifically citing the band investigation, the DOE declared itself satisfied with Ohio State’s reformed efforts to police sexual misbehavior.
Three-and-a-half hours before kickoff, the members of K-L Row (pronounced “kell row” in band argot) are sprawled outside the sousaphone storage room, tearing into free boxed dinners. The band is divided into squads, called “rows,” each with a letter designation; two rows together make a section, comprising all the instruments of a single type. Together, K and L rows contain all the sousaphone players in the band. Someone yells, “Hey Smeagol, are you ready?”
“Smeagol” is Faist’s rookie nickname. Some rows distribute nicknames to first-year members, and most are references to bro-comedies and other popular movies. Faist’s alludes to his introverted demeanor, though it easily suggests his compact features and protuberant ears. After the uproar in the 2014 report over such classics as “Jizzy” and “Ballsacagawea,” the band could not hand out new names last season. That rule was rescinded this year, but the band’s new compliance officer (a school official responsible for making sure student behavior conforms to Title IX standards) has to approve all nicknames. The system doesn’t totally work yet. The infamous “Doctor Faggot” still answers to “Doctor F” and features that version of his nickname on his Facebook profile. The fact that he plays trombone in F-Row provides a useful cover story to the authorities.
The leadership styles within each row have shifted as well. Squad leaders usually took it upon themselves to discipline their own rows. After 2014, that system is gone. Senior members can no longer compel rookies to do traditional first-year chores like carry water jugs. Anything resembling corporal discipline is equally forbidden. “For the drum-major program, athletic training is a big component,” MacMaster says. “So we would play games where, if you drop the trick, then you had to do a pushup. We talked to the university and found out that that’s considered physical punishment, so I can’t, as a squad leader, tell my drum-major-in-training, ‘You made a mistake. You have to do a pushup.'”
Reforms like these are all elements of the band’s new “cultural blueprint.” Their adopted motto is now “Attitude of Gratitude,” exhorting everyone to give thanks for the new gear the university has showered on them, like gray Nike sweats. But during this brief pregame respite, K-L Row reverts to what it is: a group of good-humored students, engaged in a grueling common pursuit, living in a world they make for themselves.
When they learn a reporter is around, the men in the row start mugging shamelessly. The question of the best musician among them is quickly settled (Seth Justice; he has perfect pitch) before the topic turns to rivalries with other rows, like a wing-eating contest with the drummers in J-I Row (pronounced “gyro”). The record is sketchy on this point, but J-I Row should just give up ever trying to match the sousaphones’ ability to down poultry.
Mark “Sassy” Tareshawty is the squad leader for K-Row, but before he can explain his nickname, Mitch “Taquito” Kahn yells, “You want to know why he’s called Sassy? Look at this. LOOK. AT. THIS.” He points at a spot on his otherwise pristine white crossbelts, and says, “He docked me for this today!” Squad leaders are in charge of uniform checks on game days. Enough demerits earns a member automatic relegation to “alternate” status the next week. Sassy, by this time tugging cartoonishly on Taquito’s crossbelts, exclaims, “Look close! Look at this dirt!”
The band is unique among college organizations. Unlike other extracurriculars, marching band is a class whose participants get grades. Unlike other classes, it is also a prominent public face of the university, attached to Ohio State’s most potent propaganda machine: the football team. But, aside from the drum major, this group gets no scholarships; they are here because they want to be. One-fourth are women, a low number, but not unusual in a brass-and-percussion ensemble, whose primary instruments have been traditionally male-dominated. Most members aspire to be either engineers or teachers. They are the best at what they do in the world. On paper, the marching band appears the way any university would want its students to look.
Actually making the roster is a tough proposition. The band holds a summer session open to the general public, where anyone can come learn the essential school songs and basic skills like the step the group uses (a chair-step, where the leg forms a 90-degree angle, toe pointed straight down, a gait short enough to fit eight steps within five yards) and turning corners squarely. Tryouts come in August, and everyone — even the previous year’s members — must audition. Decisions are made according to a strict grading system evaluating music and marching. Even getting a spot is no guarantee you will perform. The final roster lists 225 members, but only 192 dress for performances on weekends. The remaining 33 “alternates” sub for sick performers or otherwise control special effects during halftime shows. Every Monday, each alternate challenges a specific member of the regulars and, after a short competition, either supplants him or goes back to the sidelines.
“I wanted to be in the band ever since I picked up the trumpet in fifth grade,” Faist says. In tenth grade, Faist switched to the sousaphone because his new braces made it harder to blow into the trumpet’s smaller mouthpiece. He practiced under a marching alumnus, Mark Cooper, himself an i-dotter. “During my senior year in high school we had a breakfast thing for alumni,” Faist recalls. “[Former OSU president] Gordon Gee was the guest speaker, and I was playing with my high school band onstage. He’s like, ‘You’re going to dot the ‘i,’ right?’ I didn’t hesitate. ‘Yeah.'”
Both Faist and MacMaster failed the first times they tried out. Faist threw away his score sheet without looking at it. “It would have just been a constant reminder these were the scores that weren’t good enough,” Faist says. “The summer before my second tryout, I spent a lot of time in between summer sessions practicing in my backyard. If it was raining, I went down in the basement and practiced my step size and everything. I would practice all the time.”
MacMaster had to wait even longer to achieve his position. At Ohio State, drum majors spend up to two years on a development squad before becoming assistants, waiting for their chance at the top spot. MacMaster deliberately put off law school to take a less strenuous graduate course in public policy, just for the chance to be drum major. “Before I ever made it, I would look at the uniform, I would visualize how I would look, and how good it would feel to put it on,” MacMaster says. “If you can’t breathe without thinking about being a drum major, you won’t make it. The guys who just kind of think about it, they don’t have a chance.”
In September 2014, recent band members, with help from the organization’s 4,000-member alumni association, disseminated a counter-report to dispute Ohio State’s charges against Waters and the troop. It largely focuses on providing context for some of the more controversial nicknames and rookie “tricks.” Sometimes, the reasoning is disarmingly artless. The writers explain that a male student called “Taint Brush” dragging his rear end across the floor was only an innocent reference “to a South Park TV show episode…a show enjoyed by many college students and adults.” But the report also includes anonymous responses from former band members, testifying to personal struggles that resulted from the scandal.
One former member noted, “People at work were making jokes about me being a sexual monster.” Another wrote: “We’re not even allowed to make mistakes anymore to learn from them, I feel like life after college is for being professional all of the time, and college is the time to learn from mistakes and become a better person, and also [to have] fun and enjoy life and I can’t do that anymore.” And more than one person in the counter-report described a recurrence of suicidal thoughts: “I have dealt with feelings of suicide for many years. When I made this band several years ago, those feelings went away. It wasn’t until this false report and the following actions by the university that those feelings resurfaced.”
In the fallout from last summer, Ohio State sent psychological counselors to the band. Those counselors expected to uncover more trauma victims. Instead, according to conversations with recent band members, they found a group of stunned students grappling with public humiliation.
John Joyce was a mellophone player and squad leader in 2014. “The day Jon [Waters] was fired, there was a meeting for squad leaders where they said, ‘Please, if you feel like you’ve been harassed, and you’re in a bad situation, we have counseling available for you,'” Joyce says. “Over the previous four years, the band had been probably the most positive experience I’ve had in my life. It was a really formative experience. I made the best friends in my life there. To have them tell me that I needed counseling because it was such a bad experience was, like, ‘What experience was I having that you think I was having?'”
That was only the beginning of several misunderstandings between the university administration and the band, two groups separated by a benign distance until being thrown together in the midst of scandal. A meeting between squad leaders and Javaune “Dr. J” Adams-Gaston, Vice President for Student Life, took place two weeks before tryouts. Chris Hoch, an assistant director under Waters and now interim director, was also being investigated for his complicity in the scandals. “We said to Dr. J, ‘If you can’t get Jon back, make sure Chris doesn’t get fired. If we don’t have Chris or Jon in front of the band, there is a significant risk that the halftime shows will literally just be the band standing on the field playing music,'” Joyce remembers. “She said, ‘Why would that be? What would stop you from marching? We said, ‘Well, we need someone to write our drill for us.’ So in my view, there was no investigation into what actually made the band run before they fired Jon.'”
In a statement, Ohio State spokesman Chris Davey says that meeting was not for the purpose of discussing interim leadership, and Dr. Adams-Gaston was not responsible for that decision. “The administration was keenly interested in hearing from the students, listening to their concerns, connecting them with support resources, including counseling services, and ensuring that we solved the serious cultural problems in the band while also having an outstanding season on the field,” he says.
Other times, former members say, confrontations with school administration curdled into open hostility. In August, Kellie Brennan, the school’s director of Title IX compliance, held a conference with the entire band during rehearsal. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a more tense environment than that half-hour she was in front of us,” Joyce says. “We were trying to get her to define what an on-campus activity versus an off-campus activity was, and she wouldn’t give a solid answer. All she could tell us was they were redrawing the boundary for where was campus, and where wasn’t.” At that point, Joyce raised his hand. “I said, ‘Are you saying that one instance of sexual assault at an off-campus party, that then defines the room we’re in right now, this rehearsal hall, during any band rehearsal — that makes this a sexually hostile environment?’ The band applauded after that.”
Joyce sighs, before adding, “She said, ‘The fact that you applauded means that you support people committing sexual assault, and you’re blaming victims for what happened.'”
University officials told me the point of the meeting was to train students regarding sexual misconduct prevention and as part of that training Brennan explained that off-campus offenses can have on-campus consequences, and thus represent a Title IX violation. Furthermore, they deny that Brennan accused anyone in the band of condoning sexual assault or suggested the band was inherently dangerous. Officials also said that after the meeting a few band members apologized to Brennan for the hostile response.
Jocelyn Smallwood, a sousaphone player who graduated just before Ohio State released its initial findings and who was the first black woman to dot the “i,” in 2012, says the band felt safer than campus in general. “The band actually was one of the places where I felt the most safe,” she says. “I knew that if there was anyone that messed with me, be it somebody outside of the band or inside the band, I had 28 people who would step up in a second and take care of me.” She says there were times during college when she felt unsafe around suspicious men, but never in the band. “These problems are not unique to the band,” she says. “These are problems that are all over campus.”
And all over the country. Ohio State, for its part, continues to struggle with the forlorn task of reforming the behavior of college students. The day before Ohio State played Alabama in last season’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the band performed at the Buckeye Bash, an all-day rally for Ohio State fans in the French Quarter. Squad leaders recall one first-year band member got drunk in uniform and passed out at the performance. Fans caught him when he fell. The student was immediately kicked out of the band, as was his roommate, who smuggled the spirits into his hotel room, along with another member who defied the directors by bringing his girlfriend into the hotel overnight.
An even more disturbing incident occurred this April. The band’s drum-major instructor, Stewart Kitchen, a lead drum major for the band in 2006 and 2007 and hired as the band’s drum-major instructor in 2014, was arrested and accused of kidnapping and raping a 19-year-old female student. He is currently awaiting trial. OSU has changed the band, in many ways for the better. But the prevention — and not simply the prosecution — of sexual crime appears as elusive as ever.
Waters is currently fighting Ohio State in court for wrongful termination, though he recently lost his legal team because of mounting costs. The case has devolved into open recriminations and occasionally churns up more unpleasant artifacts, like a prank calendar of scantily-clad male band members the university found in Waters’ office and filed as evidence against him. But one result of the whole controversy is already clear: the band can no longer simply serve as a creative space that students fashion for themselves. “I don’t know that I feel inadvertently responsible,” Waters says. “I feel terrible for the students.”
After subsisting on donations from band alumni and the public for a year, Waters is settling into a new job at a financial management company owned by a former marcher. He had applied to forty different schools with open band instructor positions. No one called back.
Twenty minutes before kickoff, nighttime chills the air on the band ramp in Ohio Stadium. In the back, K-L Row starts hopping around like crazed devils, urging each other on with howls. Faist’s eyes widen in the darkness and his face breaks into a grin as Taquito and Sassy bump chests. “K-L Row, K-L Row, wall of sound! We dot the ‘i,’ you don’t!” they all shout. The drums at the front signals the band to attention. K-L Row falls in line. The band marches on the field.
There is something awful about drums playing alone, like a tense foreboding rhythm heralding Vikings coming ashore or the imminent crack of rifle fire. As they concuss the air, MacMaster emerges from the tunnel and runs down the ramp, kicking his long legs into the air as he clears the end zone. The mood in the stadium goes weightless from anticipation, the clapping from the stands persisting but the air sucked out. “The most crucial moment of the entire band’s game day is my run down the ramp and the start out through the backbend,” MacMaster tells me. “It’s the only time when everybody in the stadium just stops everything and looks at one person.” MacMaster, reaching heavenward with his baton, arches back and touched the tip of his red plume to the turf. The collective howl released from the crowd shocked me with the force of a recovered childhood memory, a dormant instinct that said: “Yes, now the game can begin.”
The Ohio State University Marching Band is better than it is have ever been, and there is no reason it won’t keep getting better. While Ohio State has yet to commit to interim director Chris Hoch (it is searching for a permanent replacement in the spring), he has continued the legacy of ingenious performances. At the same time, the challenges of the modern university, where concerns over money and sex and student safety intersect in strange ways, have sometimes tormented the group like a bad joke. In August 2014, one month after the scandal broke, the band performed during an orientation event for freshmen sponsored by Pink, a line of Victoria’s Secret targeting college girls. Les Wexner, who owns Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, is a major university donor. “Baby Got Back” blared on the loudspeakers while the band stood on the field.
Out on the field, the band tightens into a familiar formation, a pulsing square blaring the intimidating airs of “Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse,” a song from the Franco-Prussian War now dedicated to new battles, bloodless but no less bruising. The square twists toward the sideline, the curves revealing first a big “O” and then the delicate bend of a cursive “h.” Four minutes in, MacMaster escorts Faist from the twenty-five-yard line to the top of the “i.” Then the unmistakable moment: the plant, the doff, the bow. Everything passed in seconds. Later, Faist shows me a picture the band photographer had captured, a moment when he kicked free of the earth, both feet off the ground. “I will put this on my wall forever,” he says.
After its performance, the band shuffles off to the south stands and sits beside a giant subwoofer belching “0 to 100” by Drake. Ohio State plays the game without their phenomenal quarterback, J.T. Barrett, suspended for driving drunk. (He pleaded guilty and returned to the field the following week.) Nonetheless, the Buckeyes grind their way through a forgettable victory against the University of Minnesota.
At one point in the third quarter, a baritone horn player named Athan Nicolozakes starts talking to me. The blaring brass drowned our conversation beyond earshot of the PR flack attached permanently to my hip, providing a small sanctuary for unguarded truth amidst the rigorously managed Fan Experience of Ohio Stadium. “I have a nickname, but I can’t tell you what it is,” he says. “It’s very tense in the band now. Like, I get it. It’s much easier now, especially for rookies. But we still don’t know what we can do and what we can’t. Like, when do I get to be just a college student?”