After the final rousing chords of “Revised Entrance No. 3,” faded into the charged air of the ReliaQuest Bowl, I heard the usual, always-welcoming roar from the Illinois faithful. And behind me, I heard cowbells. These weren’t band parents from the next town over at a regional high school competition cheering on their friend’s kid. I doubt most had seen the Marching Illini perform before. Yet the Mississippi State fans were rattling their cowbells. For the Marching Illini. Right then, I truly experienced what I’ve long known about band people: it doesn’t matter what colors you wear; they will support you no matter what. The bowl trip had many other highlights—a presidential-esque police escort, the sunset flash of a dolphin fin off Clearwater Beach, performances for fans and strangers alike at Busch Gardens and on the white sand—but the welcoming, unrelenting, clanking chorus of the Famous Maroon Band and their supporters’ cowbells rings for me still.

I’m a lifelong, generational Fighting Illini—Orange and Blue runs in the family three generations deep on both sides. Almost every picture of young me features some sort of Illini paraphernalia. When I was four, I called my little Sketcher light-ups my “Dee Brown Shoes.” When we went to homecoming games, our family would cheer for the team, but scream for the band. Wearing the Marching Illini orange cape had always been my goal.

The family’s Illini fandom was refashioned into an iron-clad support system for my music education. In second grade, I started piano lessons. Three years later, at the behest of two next-door Illinois alumni, I picked up the clarinet, then switched to the tenor saxophone. In hindsight, I fulfilled every requirement possible for the honor of being in the MI, but I didn’t think about it like that at the time—I just gravitated towards where I felt most welcome. I marched with and eventually became the drum major of the Moline Marching Maroons in high school. That led me to Smith Walbridge Drum Major Clinics where I first met Professor Houser and actual members of the Marching Illini.

This past season, the Marching Illini was fortunate to spend our last three games joined by the opposing team’s marching band. Yes, they were heartbreaking games all. But they were heart warmers, too. Interactions with Purdue’s All-American Band, Michigan’s Marching Band, and the Famous Maroon Band all contained instances of almost spiritual unity between us. Amongst band kids, such moments are delightfully legion and inescapable. As a tenor saxophone in a Big Ten Marching Band, I am beholden and subject to the tradition of “The Treat” wherein each section of tenors bakes an enormous Rice Krispy treat which we then proceed to take massive bites out of. It tastes as delicious and as it does sound silly. I do not, nor do I think any Big Ten tenor sax, has the faintest clue where this tradition originated. It doesn’t matter—we knew what to do, and the tradition brought us together.

Outside Raymond James Stadium, as we were loading up the bus after the game, sweaty and with the sting of the loss still palpable, the Famous Maroon Band rushed over to us to exchange ball caps. (Special shoutout to Emma, the current clarinetist and future optometrist from Tennessee, whose Mississippi State FMB hat I’ve inherited. I will wear it with pride.) The connection band kids share goes beyond the base levels of “sportsmanship”—each of us share similar chapters of our lives written in countless lamina of sunscreen, chipped reeds and worn stick tape, devastating defeats and triumphant victories. And now, sweaty ball caps.

As an Illinois fan for 21-odd years, I’ve developed an unfortunate apathy from being accustomed to many a losing season: something I was wary of when joining the MI. I held a lot of unfounded hope for a bowl game—preferably one with warm weather—with nothing to base it in. To my shame, I’d be lying if I hadn’t been a subject of “grass is greener” syndrome. That is, why hadn’t I gone to Notre Dame or Michigan where the marching bands are excellent, and a winning football season is nearly guaranteed?

            Thankfully, the answer is easy and thus: I cannot overstate how much being in the Marching Illini has impacted me as a person. Setting aside that I am quite literally living my dream, each person I encounter in the band is kinder than the last. It is what lies underneath the sounds and visuals that makes this band the best in the land: the people. In high school, as I followed the Marching Illini on their various adventures, I’ve checked almost every single box I set out to accomplish. Playing in Soldier Field: check; venturing abroad to march in Ireland: check; Quad Day performance: check; performing a combined halftime show with another band: check. Performing in Tampa Bay Florida cheering on our beloved Fighting Illini: mega-check. And yet, not a single one of those experiences would have carried a fraction of the value they do today if I had not spent them forging bonds with the people around me under the guidance of the best team of band directors in the country. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to march “for Dear Old Illini.” What makes it a privilege, though, is that I get to do so in lockstep and shoulder-to-shoulder with my closest friends.

All this goes without mentioning the metaphorical continent of cloth used to roll out every red carpet for us all season, and especially while in Tampa. Sand in my shoes, ice-cold ocean water, and many hours on the bus took a backseat to unbridled gratitude. For the warm-weather magic of preseason camp feeling rekindled while rehearsing amongst palm trees; for spending the first moments of 2023 on a beach with fireworks and I-L-L’s alternating booms. For being an Illini.

Gabriel Lareau

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 2024

English Major