Tonight, the Washington Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles for Monday Night Football. The burgundy and gold have home-field advantage in more than one sense — the team has the oldest marching band in the NFL. From up in the stands, a group of 126 dedicated — and unpaid — band members will lead the stadium through a chorus of "Hail to the Redskins," the team fight song, each time the Redskins score.
Before each home game, the band parades around the outside of FedEx Field, playing for tailgating fans, before it heads onto the field for for a pre-game show. And after every win (and some losses) some of the band members gather behind the northwest end zone to play go-go, Washington, D.C.'s own dance music.
As one of only two marching bands left in the NFL (the Redskins band, founded in 1937, beats the Baltimore Marching Ravens, formerly the Baltimore Colts' Marching band, by a decade), the band plays throughout the game. "We cover all facets of music," says H. Wade Johnson, a third-year trumpet player, "anything from marches to Top 40. We do Christmas. We do patriotic tunes."
According to band director Eric M. Summers, each selection has to serve two purposes: first, it must be playable "without any electronic enhancement." Second, he says, "We choose music that will, in our opinion, excite people — rouse them up to cheer for the team. A lot of them are oldies that most of the audience will recognize. Those pieces that you will be able to sing some of the words to."
Redskins Marching Band members are volunteers who have day jobs as teachers, band directors, school board members and judges. Some are retired and many of them were trained in military marching bands. Although no one gets paid for their time, every band member gets a pair of tickets to each home game that they can give to friends or family members — or sell with the team's blessing — at their discretion.
Despite the slim monetary incentive and the time commitment (rehearsals during the week, 4-hour long games, pre-season appearances and local parades), about 25 people try out for five or six open spots each year. And those who make it into the band stay. Three members have been in the band for more than 50 years each.
We visited with the musicians as they were preparing for the start of the season to hear how long they've been part of the organization; what they do when they're not in uniform; and find out about their favorite memories of playing on the team.
Member of band for 31 years
Day Job: Retired teacher
"I'm a little older than most people in the band now. ... I don't actually march on the field any more. But I sit in the stands and play and help out with the wardrobe."
"I taught instrumental music. In fact I taught the drum major, John Carpenter, when he was in 7th and 8th grade back in the '80s."
"I had marched in bands like from 7th grade on; then high school and then college. And my neighbor came running over one day and said, 'Bonnie, Bonnie! They're taking women in the Redskin Band! You need to try out!' It was the end of the '70s."
Dr. Ride Ross
Instrument: Trombone player, arranger
Member of the band for 16 years
Day Job: Education administrator
"Downstairs, in the halls, we are right across from the visiting team's locker rooms and [from time to time] you get Emmitt Smith that used to come across and talk so much trash. Jerome Bettis was phenomenal about coming across [to] say, 'Hey, you all not going to play that much today, so you might as well just go home.'"
H. Wade Johnson
Member of band for 3 years
Day Job: Professor of music and Director of bands at Lincoln University
"I've been a professional performer since 1975 when I started in South Carolina at South Carolina State University and was a trumpet major there. I hail from the nice wonderful small town of McClellanville, South Carolina. It's the seafood capital of the world."
"One of my dreams was actually to be a running back for the Washington Redskins. But due to the fact that I chose music instead, this is the next best thing."
Member of band for 33 years
"I don't know that I have a favorite moment. Any time I get to play, that's a favorite moment. To play 'Hail to the Redskins' immediately after a touchdown, that is chilling. To be able to play post-game concerts after a victory, and see the fans stand and dance and enjoy what we're doing, that's just as exciting. Music is a thrill itself."