Dual ability: P.K. Yonge football player also in school band
Published: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.
P.K. Yonge’s football field is silent Friday, but not empty.
A breeze plays over the curls of grass, where tubas and trumpets rest like carefully placed artifacts in a museum, and sunlight streams from behind clouds, bounces off the silver instruments and splinters into new beams of light. In the center, about 40 kids lie in a circle, sprawled out, dead.
They’re not really dead. They’re acting.
This is PKY’s marching band. It just performed the final act of its routine, “Heartbeat,” a near 15-minute performance that crescendos with a full circle of noise from the wind and percussion sections.
The act swells like a wave, rising, rising, rising, until it peaks and crashes into a thick splat. That’s when the marchers unleash their shock ending: the heart attack.
During the last eight counts, the ensemble’s wind and color guard members drop their instruments in agony.
They stagger toward the middle, clutching their chests, screwing their faces, reaching for air. Then they collapse on the ninth and final count.
The percussionists magic their instruments into making the flat line noise of a heart monitor. The time of death: 3:31 p.m. Just as soon as it begins, it ends.
There’s a moment of dead silence. No one rises. Then a voice rings from the press box overlooking the field. It’s Willie Cobos, the band’s co-director.
“That was it!” Cobos, 23, shouts. “Take this and run with it. Whatever you felt, take it and run with it to the top. We were a little bit tired at the end. But holy moly. Yes.”
Fall has been tiring for PKY. The football team struggled, capping its 1-9 season last week with a 33-0 loss to Keystone Heights.
But that doesn’t mean fall season can’t finish on a high note for everyone. With state competitions approaching Saturday, the school’s marching band is active as ever, meticulously refining its hyper-visual routine.
And one unusual student, whose season should be over, will have the chance to participate.
Riley Stewart, 15, isn’t just an offensive and defensive lineman on the Blue Wave’s football squad—he’s also the proud owner of a baritone in the marching band.
When he isn’t gridlocked with a beefy opponent, he’s swaying with the band.
The sophomore balances the ultimate Friday night juggling act, but he says it can get hectic.
“The most prominent issue I have with it is scheduling,” he said. “It’s not incredibly hard, but I always have to decide: What am I going to do today? Am I going to band, or am I going to football? Band? Or football?”
Riley’s love for both started in middle school. Friends were joining band. The football team was winning local Boys & Girls Club competitions. It all seemed fun, exciting, new, and the decision to pick one over the other was too difficult.
So he stuck with both.
It wasn’t until eighth grade that he had to consider the implications of competing in both at the high school level. Football would be grimier, tougher. Marching band would require a new attention to discipline and precision. Together, the two would be potent.
He struggled with the decision, and arranged a meeting with PKY’s football coach, Rob Cox, to discuss doing both.
“I was asking him, ‘Hey, I really want to play football, but I really want to play band. Is there any way I can do both?’” Riley recalled. “And he was like, ‘Well sure, look at this guy, Dominique Jenkins.”
Jenkins was Riley’s prototype, a trumpet player in the band and a successful football player who graduated last year and currently plays at Campbellsville University, according to Cox.
“He kind of was running around crazy. You could tell he really enjoyed it,” Cox said.
Jenkins’ energy and enthusiasm drew Riley in, too. After getting the chance to watch the older band-football standout, he knew he wanted to do the same thing.
The downside, Riley knew, was the stress it would dump on his parents. But they were unfazed by the challenge, his mother, Cathy Stewart said.
“You have one opportunity to help them grow up,” she said. “We didn’t want Riley to not be involved in something he wanted to do. We wanted to support him.”
It sounded relatively simple. Both practices were after school, pickup time was about the same. The problem was distance. The Stewart family lives east of Melrose, making the daily commute about 30 miles. The lengthy journey makes scheduling painful, but the family finds a way.
“I’ve gotten to those points where my parents are really stressed,” Riley said. “I had a talk with them and said, ‘I can’t do that anymore. It’s really hurting you guys.’ And they said, ‘No, don’t put this on our shoulders. You’ll be driving soon. You can do this yourself. Do what you want to do.’”
During the long car rides in his dad’s black SUV, Riley sometimes experiences what he calls “football dreams.” He can picture it all: stadium lights flooding the field, cleats tearing up the grass, a ball wrestled loose, floating helpless in space.
“I’ve always dreamed a little bit,” he said. “I get in the car and I’ll just be thinking about it. My muscles are moving as I’m running.”
But Riley doesn’t need to dream about running—he already spends the majority of the day doing it.
There’s band practice Tuesday from 3 to 5:30 p.m., Wednesday starting during the last hours of the school day till 5:30 p.m. and on Friday at the same time. Competitions are on Saturday.
That’s just the band schedule.
Monday is football. Wednesday is football and band. Thursday is football. Friday is football and band. The words start to look the same with enough time. Riley calls them his “half-and-half days” instead of two-a-days.
“On Wednesday, I’d jump after band practice, run down to football, put some pads on and practice with those guys,” Riley said.
Sometimes he’ll make it right after warm ups, with practice about 30 minutes in. Other times, he’ll arrive with 30 minutes left and have to figure out how to learn what he missed. Sweaty football players continue to drill, glued into their routine; band members run through a new foreign routine; and Riley stands alone like a weird puzzle piece, unsure of where to fit, muttering “Oh, dangit. Dangit. Dangit. Dangit.”
Riley understands he’ll miss practices because of his cramped schedule. It just makes him feel bad, he said.
“I let my coach and my team down when I miss,” he said. “I don’t want to do that.”
Nobody wants him to feel guilty—that’s why Cox and Jamie Burg, PKY’s band director, coordinate schedules to figure out what’s conducive for Riley.
That’s not to be confused with special treatment, Burg, 32, said.
“We don’t lower the bar because he’s also a football player,” she said. “The bar is the same. We sit him down and tell him what he missed and what he needs to prepare for. Whereas the band got 40 minutes, uniformity, Burg explained. The show is meant to reflect one cohesive unit, one large body, one group walking in time, playing in time and dancing in time. No one’s supposed to stick out. And Riley does.
Each half time show starts the same.
Shakos bob. Uniforms and robs hang crisp and at the ready. The instruments shine like a knight’s armour as the marchers stand like soldiers and their commander, the drum major, overlooks them from his podium. Any whisper could slice the mystical tranquility of the pre-performance ambience.
Then Riley sprints onto the field. He removes his shoulder pads and helmet and stuffs them underneath the drum major’s podium. Then his faithful co-director, Cobos, greets him with his baritone in hand. Riley accepts it and dashes into line. It’s routine.
He’s not dressed the same. He’s in a blue mesh undershirt and stained football pants. His cheeks flush like tomatoes from playing, and he wears scuffed cleats instead of black dress shoes. But he moves with as much intensity as anyone. And he stands out, he breaks the sameness.
“He looks different, so your eyes immediately go to him,” Burg said. “With all eyes on him, he’s got to be on his A-game. It takes a lot. I wouldn’t want to do both.”
Cox also supports Riley’s two-activity craving but worries that the balance will be tough to keep up.
“As he gets older it’s going to be a little more difficult,” Cox said. “He’s starting to become more important in both. Next year, he’ll be good enough to start. That’s going to be tough.”
What’s equally tough is the flak, the teasing and poking from band and football members. But Riley has a unique method: He uses both to combat the other.
“I get some of the hard talk,” he said. “You know the stereotypes, ‘Oh, he’s a band geek. Oh, you’re a football jock.’ I get both both ways.
“I use band and football to cope with them. It’s valuable to me to do both because I love both of them so much.”
His resolve is noticeable, particularly to junior Ed Bonahue.
Bonahue, 16, plays football and is an active member of the school’s vocal ensemble. He sings in school musicals — he’s no stranger to jokes.
“Sometimes my teammates will say, ‘Ed, sing me a song,’ or ‘Where’s Ed? He’s probably off singing,’” he said. “I laugh it off. Sometimes I’ll sing if I’m in the mood.”
When Riley gets teased, Bonahue said he notices a similar reaction.
“I think he takes it well. He accepts his identity and he’s passionate about both,” he said. “If he does catch anything, he shakes it off and says, ‘Well, that’s how it is.’”
Practice is over now. Riley’s cleaning up. He’s the last one in the school’s band room and looks like a child in a giant’s bedroom. Long shelves stack against the wall and book bags litter the carpet. The space is about as large as a fancy restaurant.
He’s talking about quitting — not band or football, just the idea.
“I don’t try to wrap my brain around it so much,” he said, tucking his baritone bag into a cubby. “In my head I know what I need to do. You can’t think, ‘Oh, if I quit this it’s going to make my life a lot easier.’ No, it’s not going to make my life easier. I don’t like the idea of quitting. To me, if I quit, I’ve lost.”
He gives the room one last look then turns out the light and leaves. In the hallway outside the room, he’s staring at a case of glittering trophies. A ray of late afternoon sunshine breaks through the door at the end of the hallway and casts a sparkling sheen over the metal.
“These are the band’s trophies,” he said, pointing to rows of towering trophies, some as tall as a kitchen chair. “They make it worth it.”
States is as close as history, and the hallway is so quiet, one can almost hear a heartbeat.
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