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.