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Charmed Life

I'm With the Band

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 12/18/2002

It's easy to be cynical about pro sports today--football, in particular. I read somewhere how the late, great Johnny Unitas had an off-season salesman's job to help make ends meet. Today's prima donna footballers make millions. "These players play so much for the love of money that the value of competition has been lost." And who said this regarding today's all-about-the-Benjamins ballplayers? That would be Ravens owner Art Modell, quoted in The Sun on Dec. 6. Don't get me wrong--on autumn Sunday afternoons I'm at my neighborhood bar catching all the gridiron action with everyone else--but I can't help but feel something was left behind back in Johnny U.'s day.

But then I found an antidote to pro ball's dollar-driven glitz on a frigid field adjacent to the Howard County Fairgrounds. I crashed a Wednesday-evening practice of Baltimore's other purple-and-black team: the Marching Ravens, the NFL's largest and second-oldest marching band. You won't find fat paychecks here, as the entire operation--some 350 musicians, flag wavers, and support crew--is volunteer driven. And band president John Ziemann wouldn't have it any other way. "I wouldn't want paid people," he says of his squad, members of which range in age from 14 to 65. "I want people out here because they want to be--because they love the band and they love football."

The band traces its lineage through the Baltimore Colts Band, founded in 1947. (The Redskins Marching Band, the only other sizable NFL band, dates to 1938.) Ziemann joined the Colts band as percussionist in 1962, and he was instrumental in keeping it going after those infamous Mayflower vans took the team to Indianapolis in 1984. "There was no way we were going to pack it in--no way," Ziemann says.

The band's plucky perseverance garnered media attention from around the world and invites to perform at 30 NFL games across the country. But without a sponsor, the band--which shrunk to a few as 70 players at its low point--had to spend the bulk of its time fund-raising. "If it was legal, we did it," Ziemann says of the fund-seeking efforts. All that changed when the Modells brought the Browns-cum-Ravens to town in '95 and adopted the band--though they remained the Colts band their first two seasons so that they could celebrate their 50th anniversary in the sacred blue-and-white uniforms. The Marching Ravens debuted in '98.

After practicing its marching maneuvers on a makeshift football field, the band reassembles in a fairground shed to practice indoors. Here I encounter the logistics involved in running Baltimore's largest musical ensemble. A tractor-trailer--known as the Big Bird--is the band's mothership, holding instruments, music, flags, even water for thirsty musicians. (While woodwind players provide their own instruments, the brass and percussion instruments--including 24 45-pound, all-brass sousaphones--are owned by the Ravens team.) The band even has its own all-volunteer medical team. A smaller panel truck holds the jaunty uniforms--patterned after the togs Fort McHenry defenders wore during the War of 1812. The Ravens team foots the bill for it all and sacrifices a sizable chunk of salable stadium seats to accommodate the band on game days. The Modells have their critics, but not here. Their largess allows one of the NFL's newest teams to enjoy one of the sport's oldest traditions. (Once stadium public-announcement systems got up to speed--and recorded music could be piped into the stadium--most NFL bands went the way of the leather helmet.)

The following Sunday, the Ravens face a 4:05 p.m. kickoff against the New Orleans Saints. Seven motor coaches bring the band to the stadium. The bulk of the band gives a half-hour concert for the fans streaming by the Camden Yards warehouse (a smaller pep band entertains folks in the corporate tents on the far side of the stadium). Stopping to enjoy the band's rousing renditions of "Proud Mary" and "Wooly Bully" are a group of Saints fans up from New Orleans. And they're impressed. "You should all come down to Mardi Gras," one black-and-gold attired fan tells Ziemann. (You'd think the horn-happy Crescent City would have an NFL band, but no. The Saints go marching into home games without a marching band.)

The Marching Ravens perform a brief on-field pre-game show, and then assemble as a vast purple swath in their end-zone seats. It's tradition to play the "Raven's Fight Song" after each Baltimore score. Alas, the rookie-heavy team implodes early, and costly turnovers leave them down 10 to zip early in the first quarter. But the band doesn't sit still. When the Saints face third down, band members taunt them by waving paper sheets bearing the number "3" over their heads. And when the Saints attempt an extra point or field goal, the musicians wave their instruments to distract the kicker. And they make a lot of noise. Indeed, the band's boisterousness has even led the NFL to consider fining them. (Hasn't happened yet, but Ravens coach Brian Billick purportedly offered to pay any such fine himself). Usually the band marches on the field at halftime, but today the entertainment duties fall on the Ravens cheerleaders and an army of local schoolgirl pompom wavers.

The bloodletting continues in the second half. When Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake is picked off late in the fourth quarter--and with the home team down 30 to 17--fans start streaming for the exits. But the band's enthusiasm never waivers--it keeps bringing the noise and the funk. The birds rally in the closing minutes of the game but ultimately fall 25 to 37. I suppose it wouldn't be kosher for coach Billick to award a game ball after such a drubbing. But if he did on this dank day of defeat, I'd have him toss an honorary pigskin to the never-say-die band. I mean, those sousaphones weigh 45 pounds.

The Marching Ravens are always looking for new blood--musicians, flag line, and support staff. Call (410) 557-8335 for more info.

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