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SportsMonday Column: Let’s hear it for the Michigan Marching Band

Adam Glanzman/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 16, 2012

Patrick Fleming was buried in his Michigan Marching Band uniform.

Courtesy of Michigan Marching Band
The family of late trumpet player Patrick Fleming asked that he be buried in his Michigan Marching Band uniform.

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Fleming, a sophomore trumpet player, died on Sept. 26, 2011 in a car crash on US-23 near Fenton, Mich. Scott Boerma, director of the Michigan Marching Band, still remembers the call from his receptionist on that Monday morning. He had just stepped out of his office in Revelli Hall to grab lunch at the mall.

“That can’t be true,” he thought, staring at the phone in his hand. “How could that have happened?”

He’d experienced a loss in the band before, when he was a high school director in Novi, Mich. But that student was in a long-time battle with leukemia; they saw that one coming, they had time to prepare.

“That’s indescribable,” Boerma said. “You never expect something like that to happen.”

Just two days earlier, Fleming had taken his spot at the base of the block ‘M’ during pregame of the Michigan-San Diego State game. Now he was gone. Boerma contacted counseling services on campus and then delivered the heartbreaking news to the band.

That Saturday, Fleming’s hole in the block ‘M’ was left empty. It was a painful absence, even for those who never knew Fleming. But it brought the MMB family even closer.

“It didn’t surprise me, really, but it was so profoundly obvious that something like that you think might tear people apart did just the opposite,” Boerma said. “It brought us all closer together and made us realize how fragile life is and how important the bonds are. I saw the band really cling to each other and forge forward.”

Fleming’s family requested he be laid to rest in the uniform he loved so much.

“That was unprecedented,” Boerma said. “Ultimately, it was decided that what Patrick would want the most was most important. That was pretty profound to go to his funeral and see him lying in his uniform.

It’s hard to relive the memories from just a year ago. What Boerma likes to remember is the outpouring of support the band received in the wake of Fleming’s death.

Boerma picked a wristband off his desk on Friday afternoon and twirled it between his fingers. It alternated purple, maize and blue, a memento from the Northwestern band that wore them that week.

There were myriad cards from well-wishing programs across the country. Drum majors from Michigan State and Ohio State delivered 12 roses — one from each Big Ten band — and laid them in Fleming’s spot in the block ‘M.’ They also brought a drum major baton inscribed with Fleming’s name.

Ohio State had a moment of silence during its skull session. The Spartan Marching Band posted a video offering their condolences, and performed Amazing Grace to honor Fleming.

News travels quickly between bands. Rivalries aren’t impenetrable walls, and there’s something beautiful about that.

Two years ago, though, the MMB was on the giving end of that support.

The Massachusetts Marching Band — dubbed ‘The Power and Class of New England’ — was in town for Michigan-Massachusetts in September 2010. But that visit was made with the heaviest of hearts.

In marching band, like every other walk of life, there are legends. And there are legends lost. While the marching Minutemen were en route to Ann Arbor in 2010, they stopped by Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio for a quick performance. At 10:30 p.m., George N. Parks, the band’s director for three decades, suffered a heart attack and died suddenly.

When Massachusetts arrived at Revelli Hall the next afternoon, the MMB lined the walls of the practice hall with signs in hand.

“It was another example of, just wow,” Boerma said. “I was so proud, not surprised, that they stepped up and welcomed the UMass band.”

***

There are sides of the marching band family that you never see. If you understood them — the pain, the tireless dedication — you might get to your seat on time, you might stay in your seat during halftime.

Michigan Stadium announcer Carl Grapentine announced a halftime lineup on Saturday that whipped the student section into a frenzy — and likely left thousands others with a look of confusion.

“Call Me Maybe.”

“We Found Love.”

“Moves Like Jagger.”

“We have a different kind of audience to cater to,” Boerma said. “It’s a football crowd. They come here to rah-rah and have a good time. We have to make sure we have a show that’s going to connect to a different faction of the audience each week.”

It’s all part of a balancing act.


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