Part II: Preparing for game day is never straightforward, from adapting to rain showers, timing the flyover, or baking hundreds of potatoes

By MIKE McINALLY - February 9, 2024

How do you feed nearly 300 hungry members of the Oregon State University marching band? Sharon Heckers knows: baked potatoes, with all the trimmings.  

Heckers has decades of experience with this, ever since her daughter, Kristin, was performing with the high school dance team in Grants Pass. At the time, Sharon Heckers says, band members were eating “pizza and junk,” and she decided that “We can do better than this – and cheaper.”

So, 10 years later, in 1999, Heckers and her colleagues started working to feed the OSU band and color guard; at that time, Kristin was performing with the color guard.

Sharon Heckers is still doing it today.

“I love it,” she says, “and I still come up for game day weekends.”

Today, band members call Sharon Heckers “Mama Heckers.”

Members of the color guard call Kristin Heckers their instructor and choreographer, a duty she’s been performing since 2002 – she is the longest-serving member of the band’s staff. She was with the OSU color guard when she was at the university, and her resume also includes stints with drum and bugle corps and winter guard ensembles.

“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” she says.

But she still gets a charge from watching the color guard – and the whole band – in action.

“There’s an electricity to seeing these students perform,” she says about her charges, and it’s clear that students in the color guard share that sense.

“It’s really exciting, being able to share that spirit,” says Rosa Quiroz, a color guard member.

Even if it means treating a game day as a daylong performance.

“You basically have to be smiling for 12 hours nonstop,” she says. “You always have to be a performer.”

But the band and the color guard get a few minutes out of the public eye during their 4 p.m. break -- three hours after the call for today’s game -- to devour the potatoes and to stretch out on the indoor football field at the Truax Indoor Practice Center. They divide themselves by sections; trumpet players in one circle, sousaphone players in another, saxophonists over there, the members of the drumline stationed – more or less appropriately – in the middle of it all.

Justin Preece, the band’s drumline instructor, has been working with OSU’s drumline for a decade now. He first fell in love with marching bands while growing up in Illinois and Texas and working in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as a freelance percussionist. (He worked on a software job as his day gig.) He moved to Corvallis to take a science research job at OSU with an eye toward checking out the school’s marching band.

Like any good percussionist, his timing was good.

“They were looking for a new drumline instructor,” he says. “And I had the resume. … So this is my 10th year now and I love working with students.”

The drumline requires considerable skills from its performers – but Preece says it’s not a good fit for every percussionist.

“The goal is a very highly scripted performance,” he says. “It’s the opposite of jazz,” which puts a priority on improvisation. But for drumline players, the thrill of playing in a tight ensemble with other percussionists can be visceral, he says: “I’m getting to hit a drum, and it makes a sound and I’m drumming with people and we’re having fun together.”

It’s that nature of performing as a unit that makes the drumline special, Preece says: “The pursuit that they’re after is technical excellence that leads to a performative expression as a unit.”

And, he adds, don’t discount the physical nature of performing in a marching band. And don’t mistake  marching for simple walking: “It isn’t,” he says. “And there’s cognitive load on top of the physical demands. But these are athletes in that way, and people don’t always understand that, that they are musician athletes. It’s a different skill set, and it looks different, but it is absolutely athletic.”

As the clock ticks past 4:30, the athletes in the band have finished their potatoes and are gearing up for the “Step Show,” a full-fledged performance on the steps of Gill Coliseum.

Each section gets pumped up in a different way. The trumpet players get ready to step into what they call its “hype circle.”

“What day is it?” yells trumpeter Jaeden Bell.

Trumpeters roar back: “Game day!”

“I said, ‘what day is it?’”

“Game day!”

It’s 4:45 p.m on game day, and the band is off for Gill and the “Step Show,” the performance on the steps outside Gill Coliseum. To get there, band members enter Gill through a door in the back and flow through the hallways to the lobby, where they wait for the cue to burst through the doors spread out on the steps.

Once on the steps, the band works through a brisk set of crowd-pleasers, from the Santana song “Everybody’s Everything” to the durable “Beer Barrel Polka” and wrap up with OSU fight songs. The show is over at 5:22 p.m. The band flows back through the halls of Gill and starts the walk back toward Reser. Clouds threaten rain to the north.

But the moisture holds off, unlike a rehearsal at Reser two days before, when woodwind players had to stash their instruments in their cases to keep them dry – and then had to practice the marching drills while pretending to hold their instruments, the way mimes might do in performance.

By 5:35 p.m. on game day, the band has split into two parts – each waiting in one of the tunnels leading onto the field at Reser Stadium. On the field, on the north end zone, band assistant Dave Manela, wearing a headset, worries that the cloud cover might prevent the flyover, now less than 10 minutes away, by two jets racing toward Reser. These flyovers almost never come off on time, he says, and he would know -- as a student at OSU, he played tenor sax in the band before graduating with a computer engineering degree. He’s another example of how the band attracts students from throughout the campus.

Finally, at 5:47 p.m., the drumline takes the field, followed by the members of the marching band, drawing a big cheer from the crowd.

New members in the band – those not quite yet drilled in the marching routines -- move to the west sideline and play along with the music, although they don’t march. The video screen in Reser shows a view of the band as seen from the second deck of the stadium – if you’re seated too close to the ground, you don’t have a high-enough perch to make out whatever the band is spelling out.

After a few tunes, the band is ready to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but the timing isn’t quite right yet for the flyover. So Eric Leung, the director of bands at OSU and the conductor for the anthem, gets the signal: Stretch. So the opening drum roll plays for an additional 15 or so seconds before Leung brings in the rest of the band. It’s 5:53 and six seconds.

Eighty-four seconds later – just as the band reaches the “home of the brave” part of the song – two jets scream over the stadium.

They’re right on time.

And the rest of the pregame routine – complete with the Beaver spell-out – goes just fine, despite earlier worries. After the show, band members dash for their assigned seats in the south end of the stadium. Preece applauds them as they clamber up the steps off the field, even as the opening kickoff, boomed high into the air, heads their way.

“That was awesome,” Preece says. “Good job, everybody.”

Band members won’t march again until halftime. But they still have hours of work ahead.

NEXT: Fifteen first downs? Play “First Down” 15 times.

Read Part 3