If you were raised in the south and have reached a certain age, Friday nights in the autumns of your youth were spent in high school football stadiums. Ah yes; High School Football. Every red blooded American boy had dreams of being the gridiron hero, the steely eyed hard-body that caught the same pass that he threw and bulldozed his way 80 yards down the field twisting and turning, leaping and stiff-arming the luckless defensive players on the other team. Finally, using his herculean strength, staggering across the goal line carrying five or six would be tacklers with him. Yeah, that was my pre-pubescent dream. But my reality was that I was a 6 foot beanpole who could not gain more than 125 pounds.
That left basketball or track as my path to “Letterman Glory”. Well, that left track because I couldn’t shoot a basketball straight if my life depended on it. I could run however and I did manage to score my coveted Block K but near the bottom instead of a football, mine had a winged foot. But there was a second letter in my collection and when I look back on it, this second letter is the one that represents my happy memories better. This second letter had a “G-Clef” symbol, on it. It was my band letter.
I remember like it was yesterday, the day Mr. Frank Borkowski our brand new band instructor stuck his head into my freshman study hall to recruit us into the band. This was the first year that my high school, Bishop Kenny had a band. I thought that being able to play an instrument would be a great thing to do. I had visions of playing a saxophone or clarinet but Frank thought I was made for playing the trumpet. So I became a member of the brass section. I should note that Frank would leave Bishop Kenny after 2 years to return to school at West Virginia University where he was also the director of bands. He eventually became the Provost and Vice President at my The University of South Carolina, my college alma mater then president of the University of South Florida and then Chancellor at Appalachian State University. But he never ventured too far from his band roots and was on the board of Marching.com. I still see Frank and his wife, Kay now and then as his son and his family still live here.
Left: Bishop Kenny on the south band and Everbank Field on the north bank. Courtesy Google Maps. But, back to high school; late in the fall, Frank led his fledgling band to the football stands for the first time in the history of the school. We were not ready to march yet so we played our hearts out blasting away at the three songs we had learned; “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, The University of Michigan Fight Song and the Notre Dame Fight Song. I have to tell you that over the next three years, we played those same tunes so many times that I still can remember the fingerings when I dream of the old days. The other thing that comes to mind is that we did not have a “home field” back in those days. Bishop Kenny was still struggling to accommodate the ever growing student body and a football field was low on the priority list. What is cool about this is that we had to play our home games somewhere and one field was always available on Friday nights, right across the St. Johns River; The Gator Bowl Stadium! Yes, we played our home games on the site of Everbank Field, the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Super Bowl XXXIX was played back in 2005. The current stadium still contains some of the structure that was our home field.
So during my sophomore and junior years, the pep band was “all in” with the football team, we felt the triumph of victory and the agony of defeat almost as much as the team. My junior year, the year that Frank left, Charlie Hoffecker took over the reins of leading the band and we began to fill out our repertoire with marches written by John Phillip Sousa. Now we were big time. This was way too cool for a music loving kid in high school. Charlie was a trumpet man himself so the trumpet section found itself right in the middle, in front of his podium. This was both good and bad. The good was that we were in the thick of things the bad was that Charlie could hear every note we played. And more than once I would get “The Eye” for being a quarter-tone off. I must say that even though Charlie and I got to be great friends, even driving with him across town to school and home every day, I sometimes thought that he was being tougher on me than the other trumpet players.
When my senior year came, the revelation of why he was being so tough on me came to light. This was the year the Bishop Kenny Band was to make history: we were to march out on the field for the very first time. One afternoon of the first week of school, Charlie said that he had something to ask me; would I take on the responsibility of Drum Major? I would have to give up track and cross country and commit to a much heavier involvement in the band. I would also have to have my parent’s approval. After sleeping on it overnight and talking to Mom and Dad, my answer was a resounding yes. I have never regretted that decision. As it turns out, Charlie, who also taught earth science, math and physics, was assigned a class to teach during what was the girl’s band period. Yes we had single gender classes back then. I was assigned a free period for that period so I had to take on the responsibility of teaching the girls’ band period that fall. That meant that I had to learn every instrument in the band at least well enough to help them with the basics. This was on top of being the drum major in the after school marching band practices.
So, a few short weeks later on a cool misty Friday night, I found myself standing in the front of the nervous band in a block formation in corner of the playing field at the Gator Bowl all decked out in my band uniform. I looked up through the mist at the lights shining down on the slightly dewy field and the little crowd in the middle of those enormous stands just a week or so before those stands would be overflowing the stadium at the Florida – Georgia game. It was a much smaller crowd but it looked like the flood of the masses to me. My heart was in my throat as I took in my breath and let out a “tweet, tweet, tweet” and set the downbeat as we marched out. It all remains a blur in my memory as via baton signals I signaled forward march, diagonal left, diagonal right and reverse turn march to trace and retrace our path across the field, playing, what else, The Notre Dame Fight Song! Today, I can’t watch a Jaguar’s game without thinking of that Friday night under the lights so long ago. Oh MY!