The marching band you see in front of you is like a lot of them in Ohio. They play the 1812 Overture. They form tricky patterns. They even dot the "i" in Ohio.
The only difference is, the "i" they form is in Braille, because this marching band is blind.
They're the Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Panthers and -- as far as I can tell -- they're the only blind marching band in the world.
Brian Rowan is one of the bass drummers. He's 12. He has a tumor behind his eyes that has already taken the sight in his right eye and will soon take his left. Doesn't keep him off the field.
"I don't know why you guys cry so much," he told his parents -- Karl and Shelly -- when he was diagnosed. "I'm still going to do all the things I wanted to do. You watch."
They did. Last Saturday. Standing right next to me at a high school football game in Columbus, Ohio. Didn't help. Mom was still crying.
Which is the exact reaction that OSSB's Carol Agler, the woman who thought of this whole idea six years ago, doesn't want.
"We don't want any 'Awwwwww's' when people see us play," she says. "We want 'Ohhhhhh!'s'. We want people to be entertained. What we're trying to do is show the amazing abilities of the disabled."
They were pretty Ohhhhhhh! Saturday, sighted or non-sighted. (Some are visually impaired, not blind.) Twenty-three members strong, they whirled through four songs in nearly perfect pitch (a third of them have it) and nearly perfect order. Nobody tripped. Nobody smashed into anybody else. Nobody wound up in the parking lot.
How do they keep from running straight into the goalposts, you ask?
They're guided by 19 volunteer "marching assistants." Of course, a lot of the time, the assistant is guided more by the band member than vice versa.
"I had no idea where I was going," said marching assistant Daniel Cook, 17, who plays trumpet in his own Franklin Heights (Ohio) High School marching band. "Brian did most of the work."
OK, so at one point half of them were swinging left on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the other half were swinging right. Nearly lost a few teeth there. But, overall ...
"Pretty good!" pronounced the band director, Dan Kelley, who's been blind since birth. "We screwed up a couple little things. One group went out too far, but the rest of the band sort of came to them."
I blinked at him for a second or two.
How could you know that?
"Oh, I can hear them," Kelley says. "When they mess up with their feet, it messes up their playing."
Kelley is about as disabled as a road paver. He loves his chain saw. Sometimes, when all the cars are gone from the school parking lot, he likes to drive his buddy's car. With his buddy in it, of course.
He once made it onto the famed Ohio State marching band, sans assistant. "I was fine," says the trumpet-playing Kelley. "Just as long as I stayed right between my two piccolo players."
What was weird Saturday was that Kelley's heroes didn't get much applause from the 200 or so people in the stands. This might be because they played at a game involving two deaf football teams -- the Ohio School for the Deaf vs. the Georgia School for the Deaf. Many of those in attendance were probably deaf themselves.
If you've never seen football played by deaf players, you should. The football is exactly the same (a deaf team invented the huddle) except that every now and then some tailback will go 80 yards because he never heard the whistle. That happened twice Saturday. Also, it is eerily quiet, like you're watching a game on mute. And being in a deaf football team's locker room at halftime is louder than standing next to a 727. They bang on the lockers with their helmets. They shriek. They usually have a big kettle drum that they pound on. They get psyched up for the third quarter by feeling all those vibrations.
It was a very odd afternoon when you thought about it. Here were two deaf football teams playing for a band that couldn't see them. Followed by a band playing instruments for football teams that couldn't hear them.
But the blind kids thrilled at the sounds of the crushing tackles. And the deaf kids could see the snappy blue-and-red OSSB uniforms with the bright red plumes in the hats. They could see the shiny sousaphones and tubas. And of course, they could feel the vibrations of the big bass drums. In the stands, the deaf fans wiggled jazz hands in glee.
If they'd been at the Rose Parade last year in Pasadena, they could've seen them marching in that, too. Six miles worth. A very cool week for these kids, who range from 12 to 20. The day before, they got to touch all the floats. Float builders kept bringing them seeds and sticks and flowers to hold and feel and smell. Who gets to do that?
Hang around this school long enough -- they have track (sprinters hold on to guide wires) and wrestling (grapplers start out touching) and goal ball (a kind of football) -- and you'll be blown away at what they can do.
"I remember when he was born," says Jennifer Brandon, mother of band member Billy, 15. "I thought, 'How will he ever be able to do anything?' Well, this summer, we were both climbing an 8,000-foot mountain in New Mexico. We got about halfway up, and I said, 'Billy, maybe we should stop.' And he said, 'Mom, I can do this!' And I said, 'I know you can do this. I can't do this!' I had to stop there, but he made it all the way."
What do you give a kid who can dance 100 yards while playing a tuba and climb mountains?
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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
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