I have a standing retort anytime someone asks me if I'm going to the Mankato West football game.
"I just go for the music," I say.
Which is mostly true.
I enjoy a good touchdown pass and bone-crunching tackle as much as the next guy. Sitting on a cold metal bleacher plank, covering up with a blanket, seeing a ton of people I know ... Sure, I like very Minnesotan ritual of watching football in a high school stadium on a cool fall evening (slightly masochistic, but very nostalgiac.)
But when the question arises "Who is having the most fun at this game?" I've got news for you. It's not the players. It's not the fans. It's not even the middle-school kids who come to the game, pay their admission fee, then proceed to watch not one one minute of football because they're busy chasing each other under the bleachers.
Nope, the most fun is being had by a group of students in the center of the bleachers, each one holding an instrument or pair of drum sticks. It's the pep band, folks.
I started attending the games last year, when my daughter, Emma, was a freshman. She plays clarinet. I remember her telling me she was required to be at ALL pep band functions. But she didn't seem to mind. And after attending a few games, I know why.
My most recent pep band experience was last weekend. On the field, it was a thrilling homecoming loss to Rochester John Marshall. In the stands, in my seat next to the kids blowing trumpets and banging on drums, the story was full of characters, full of life, full of fun.
No home game can begin without the pep band's always rousing version of our national anthem. Mankato West is blessed with a ton of students who love music, love being in band and love being part of athletic contests via the pep band. But when it's time to get serious and play "The Star Spangled Banner," the west kids always come through.
With director Brady Krusemark at the helm, I'd put the West pep band version against just about any pep band (calm down East parents ... I'm sure your pep band is just as good if not better, OK?) Their fine musicianship is a great tone-setter for the rest of the game.
A quick look around the band shows a bunch of kids with a bunch of smiles on their faces. When there's a break in the action, Krusemark holds up a sign with the name of the next song the band will play. Could be "Sweet Caroline," could be "The Final Countdown," or it could be something called "Mortal Kombat," or "Go West Go!"
When they're not playing, they're having fun together. Ryan Geving wears his trademark sombrero and runs up and down the aisle shouting "DEW RUN!" and collecting $2 from kids who want a bottle of Mountain Dew. Riona Ryan is sporting headphones and, while few people saw her stumble off her perch during the national anthem and erupt in a giggling fit, I saw, and loved that moment of spontaeous humor. Emma's in there, too. Although sometimes she's hard to spot. She's vertically challenged, like her father. But a few of her good friends, like Leah and Katelyn, aren't. Luckily I usually grab a spot where I can peer through the tangled maze of clarinets and saxophones and find her bespectacled face smiling back at me. Sometimes I stand up at the front of the band and shout her name out and call her sweetie, which prompts a blushed face and a smile. But in this crowd, an embarrassing shout-out from Dad is a mere footnote to the evening.
One of the best things about the pep band, especially on homecoming night, is the presence of alumni. One of my daughter's real-life role models is Hannah Oberle, who is a freshman this year at Gustavus Adolphus College. Hannah was a top-notch student and gifted musician. She was also a drum major with the Mankato Area 77 Lancers. She is one of the bright stars who left West last year.
But on Homecoming Friday, she returned to West. And where did she spend her time? With the pep band, of course. Not to be outdone, Josh Portner, another standout student and stud trumpet player, also came for the night. I never actually saw Josh show up. But I sure as heck heard him after he got there. The kid plays loud. He also attends Gustavus. Later on, I asked Emma about it. She was excited to see them both, and said having people like that show up makes the night even more special.