On Sunday, 653 days after the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion, a reformed Florida A&M Marching 100 returned to the field in front of an announced crowd of 24,376 at the site of Champion's final performance.
There was a football game played at the Citrus Bowl, too -- FAMU beat Mississippi Valley State 27-10 in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge -- but the spotlight was on the band, which played the national anthem before the Rattlers victory, then put on a raucous halftime show and a "fifth-quarter" performance after play ended.
The 7-minute, 35-second halftime performance began with a moment of silence to honor victims of hazing, however Champion's name was never mentioned specifically. The announcer then declared the Marching 100 "incomparable, fabulous and fantastic," before announcing that the theme of the show was "the return of America's band."
"It was two years (ago) the last time we touched this exact same field, and being on the sidelines (gave me) chills and goosebumps, and the crowd actually chanting and not being able to hear the whistle from the bottom of the crowd, it was excitement," said Ronald Gray, a junior euphonium player in the Marching 100. "This is our passion, this is our love. ... I lost sleep last night thinking about it."
The Marching 100 featured more than 400 members at the time of Champion's death in November 2011, but trotted onto the field Sunday at a more svelte 140. However, the PA announcer made a point to reiterate band director Sylvester Young's message that, "size does not matter (when) the sound is clear."
During the performance, FAMU honored the host, Disney, by forming a Mickey Mouse head outline while playing the Mickey Mouse Club theme, then broke into a rendition of Justin Timberlake's 'Suit and Tie.'
At one point during the show, the traditionally edgy FAMU band also started some smack talk, mocking Mississippi Valley State's on-field dance team when the PA announcer said it was "time for the real dance routine" before the band broke out into a full dance during the final song of the show.
"I feel like a proud parent," Young said. "This was a very precious, memorable moment."
The quip with regard to FAMU football has always been that the band is the real show, and the crowd seemed to support that statement. Below is a photo of the FAMU side of the Citrus Bowl crowd, followed by an image of the same crowd midway through the third quarter:
The Marching 100 will return home to Bragg Stadium Saturday for the home opener against Tennessee State. Following one of the band's pre-drill practices in August, senior tuba player Randall Reid said he expects the first game at home to be an even better atmosphere than the band's premiere.
"I think as the season goes on, we're just going to get more and more excited," Reid said. "Whatever takes place at that first game, I guarantee that next game it'll be, 'Well now we're really , really pumped, we're finally back, we just crossed that first big hurdle.' Now we can really move forward and put the rest of this behind us."
After Tennessee State, FAMU will host Samford. Then on Sept. 21, the Rattlers will travel to Columbus to face Ohio State, however the band won't be joining them on that trip.
During an interview last month, FAMU interim president Larry Robinson joked that, "we didn't know if (the football team) could handle what's going to happen to them on the field, and then the band outperforming them too, so we decided not to take the band," however, the decision was actually made out of concerns over funding and the band's readiness to make such a trip.
"We're a little bit concerned about overtaxing them and really, overexposure," Robinson said. "It's going to be a little different for folks. ... You don't just look at the Ohio State game in isolation as part of the season for the band, and we just thought we'd pass on that one for now."
Florida A&M and its band will be back in Orlando on Nov. 23 -- two years and four days after Champion's death -- for the Florida Classic, the school's annual rivalry game against Bethune-Cookman College. But the focus around the Marching 100 is clearly on the road ahead.
"It was definitely an electrifying feeling, it was definitely a wonderful experience to be back," said Thaddeus Stegall, a senior drum major.
"It was awesome to be back and see the fans wanting us here as much as we wanted to be here. ... Obviously, perfect practice makes perfection, so the more that we practice, the better we will get. So if that was a wonderful show today, you can only imagine what there is to come in the future."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at email@example.com .