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Weekend in Waco

Four Years of Pep Band Ends in Texas


My voice is still hoarse. My eyes are still groggy. I am still reeling with a weekend hangover that’s filled with nostalgia and some withdrawal. The culprit, however, hasn’t been alcohol intoxication. It’s been three days in Waco, Texas capped by a heartbreaking one-point loss in the first round of the women’s NCAA tournament.

That combination might not seem like hangover material, and maybe a few days removed from a sleep deprived redeye flight might prove that point. But bear with me. I’ve spent four years playing trumpet in the pep band for Fordham University and have subsequently lived and breathed Fordham sports. It’s a unique, dedicated perspective, and one I wrote about last year. It doesn’t require analysis, just consistent attendance and musical, vocal support, things I’ve been proud to contribute to the Coffey field bleachers and Rose Hill Gym grandstands. They’re things Fordham still struggles with, too.

My freshman year I experienced the fruitless last games of women’s basketball head coach Cathy Andruzzi and saw a men’s team stun St. John’s and then quietly fold the remainder of the season.  Throughout my four years I’ve made music in the atmospheric Madison Square Garden and heard my notes echo in the hollow Izod Center. I’ve endured a blizzard outside at an Army football game and enjoyed late September at Lincoln Financial Field. I’ve triumphed at St. Joseph’s Hagan Arena and collapsed in disappointment at the Barclay’s Center a week later. I’ve played our fight song “The Ram” over 3,000 times.

This year has made everything worth it: to witness the slow evolution of Fordham athletics from inside jokes to newspaper headlines. Football head coach Joe Moorhead beat Temple and everyone’s expectations this year, giving fans two playoff games to enjoy. The men’s basketball team under head coach Tom Pecora struggled but finally earned the program a postseason victory against George Mason. Head coach Stephanie Gaitley said she needed three years to turn the women’s basketball program around, and in her third year celebrated an A-10 Championship and NCAA birth. Playing “The Ram” has meant a little more these days.

So, excuse me for any perceived exaggeration, but the last three weeks have been some of the most rewarding of my collegiate career, and they’ve all been spent with the women’s basketball team. It started with a traffic punishing 6-hour bus trip to Richmond and ended with nylon between my teeth. Our small but proud band chanted in unison that weekend, bonded during excursions to the James River, and tasted the partial glory in beating Dayton in the Atlantic Ten championship. We broke the fourth wall; we hugged players, took pictures, cut nets, and touched the trophy. I hadn’t played a minute, but lived and died inside every one those three days. That was worth something.

Then the selection show. Then Waco, Texas.

First of all, I don’t envy student athletes’ constant travel. But they know how to travel, that’s for sure. Admittedly, along with the rest of the band, this was my first chartered flight somewhere. I don’t like air travel too much but I could get used to minimal security, no lines, open seating, and bus to plane door chauffering.

We leave Thursday morning from White Plains and arrive on the Waco airport tarmac where Cowtown charter buses escort us to our hotel. Out my window is flatness and dry farmland and other Texas stereotypes. My itinerary is free until game time, 3pm on Saturday.

The city of Waco could be described as a desolate wasteland. It survives along the Brazos River and boasts a population of about 125,000. As I walked around its “downtown” I counted about 12 locals. That seemed like a lot considering that nearly every other building or storefront was up for lease, had boarded windows, or had just been vacated. The Thursday nightlife on Main Street appeared to be a distant memory, now cluttered with broken down automobiles and crumbling motels. At one point, above the town’s tallest building (A 20 story tower with an “Alico” sign attached), a dozen turkey vultures began circling. I joke to my friend that there’s a dead body near us and that we’ve just been enveloped by a Coen Brothers movie. It’s no movie. Waco is the carcass.

The concierge guide lists only several feasible options to explore. There’s a Dr. Pepper museum where you can see old glass bottles encased by old glass. There’s a Texas Sports Hall of Fame. There’s the Cameron Park Zoo. There’s Baylor University’s campus. I decide on the latter two, the saving graces of the trip’s free time.

Baylor’s campus is actually the saving grace of Waco. It splits the city into two and projects the postcard college aesthetic high school juniors envision when they rip open their first application letter. Every building is somehow a perfectly identical brownstone. You can’t tell if dorms are old or new, for upperclassmen or underclassmen. A lot of people jog around campus mostly because it’s 1,000 acres large. It’s dusk when I stumble upon Baylor’s athletic facilities, a row pompously demonstrating the importance and financial accessibility Baylor puts into its sports. At the top, the Ferrell Center for basketball, then beautiful Baylor Ballpark that poses as a Double-A field, a miniaturized park for softball, three columns of tennis grandstands, an indoor football field and then the opus, a new football stadium nearly finished a few miles away in the distance. Everything is bigger in Texas.

My buddy and I catch Oklahoma State batting practice that night in preparation for their three game series to open Big 12 conference play. We catch up with a freshman pitcher collecting the batted balls and chat about the team’s chances this year, how campus reacted to Marcus Smart, and lament his consistent bus travel each weekend. The next night we attend the opening game on a perfect night, the kind where being outside feels like being inside. It’s in the low seventies with just a slight breeze. About 2,000 fans are in seats. Baseball is an event in Texas. This is how college baseball is supposed to feel.

On game day we play the fight song in the hotel lobby as the girls walk to the bus. It’s always a little awkward, but it embodies the inherent paradoxical nature of the pep band’s relationship with players. One minute I am relaying my encounter with an Orangutan at the zoo with freshman forward Hannah Missry, and the next minute I am shouting with all my lungs at her after she drains a three pointer. Take away the court boundaries and jerseys and we are all college students with different skills. Replace them, and the divisions between emphatic fan and talented athlete come into clear focus. The moments of shared joy and pain come in the ambiguities: when we collectively gather in the small airport lobby or wait to pick up our luggage emerging from the plane.

The game is great. California is bigger but Fordham plays their game. It’s back and forth and every won possession is a minor miracle. You can tell the girls are nervous when some passes get stolen and Erin Rooney gets trapped in the corner. You can tell they’re resilient when Samantha Clark continues to nail threes and Emily Tapio boxes out against a girl six inches taller. One problem with cheering so loudly is that all of the energy stored in my lips evaporates to the point where my trumpet playing becomes barely audible. It’s fun to watch because you can tell the team is having fun. Abigail Corning smiles between her mouth guard after getting fouled and the bench is vocal as always. The energy from the mostly Baylor oriented crowd picks up by the end.

The NCAA tournament can be amazing and amazingly cruel. When Fordham loses by one point in the final seconds, the emotional high the entire band used as a platform collapses. The fall is unimaginably deflating. The shock knocks me out behind Cal’s fight song. Baylor and Western Kentucky take the court and in a matter of moments everything is gone. A free-throw there, a layup here… Hindsight naturally creeps in.

When Rooney’s last second attempt falls short and the red light buzzer sounds, it is the end of many things. It is the end of 2013-2014 Women’s Basketball. It is the end of Rooney’s and Corning’s Fordham careers. It’s the end of playing my trumpet for Fordham sports. It’s the end of this magical run.

The band heads back up to the concourse to board the bus. We pass sympathetic Baylor fans. “They played ‘whale’,” says an older man. “Yeah they deehd,” says his friend. Later that night, still coming to terms with an 11:30pm flight home, we eat at George’s restaurant and order chicken-fried steak, voted Waco’s best for thirteen consecutive years. It puts everyone into a better mood. And then I think back to walking out of the Ferrell Center.

A cool rain was just starting to fall and eventually it turned into a brief monsoon as we bused back to the hotel. The drizzle baptized our defeat. Maybe the rain disguised some tears, but it was also a cleansing moment, promising new life and rebirth. I check the forecast for the Bronx and it displays temperatures in the high thirties for the whole week. Sometimes Mother Nature is harsh. Sometimes it’s wonderfully meaningful.

And now I’m back, dealing with all of this.  The pop culture cure for a hangover is a cold shower and lots of time. I’ve already experienced one of those. Now I’ll wait and hope. This is the only hangover I never want to forget.