Jason Mackey Column

Let high school bands do their thing

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Perhaps the only thing more upsetting than the sight of empty beer cans and liquor bottles in the parking lots at Heinz Field for the WPIAL championships Friday was what transpired inside the stadium during four “halftime shows.”


Those previous two words are in quotes because the high school marching bands had to perform their routines on the sidelines, prohibited from using the entire playing surface at Heinz Field.


Maybe now we should call them high school standing bands?


I’m sure there’s a very bureaucratic reason for this, one that will be explained to me by someone much older and wiser, probably in some condescending tone because I’m so young and dumb, but my response will still be this: So what?


I don’t care whether this is a money thing, a Heinz Field rule or whatever the case might be. What I do care about is it limits the opportunities of kids who’ve worked all season at something.


And, forgive me for speaking out of turn, but isn’t that what high school athletics are all about?


One point that should not be lost here is this: Getting to play at Heinz Field has to be one of the coolest things going. Stepping on the same field as Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward ... man, I couldn’t imagine anything better as a former high school football player myself.


But I was also in the band – our school allowed both – and that part of me aches for the kids who’ve worked all season at something they love, only to be told they need to scrunch together real tight and play standing still.


That’s what bands do. That’s not what marching bands do.


No, marching band does not rival football in physical exhaustion. Believe it or not, some people will say it does. But until a trumpet player tackles a drummer, I won’t defend that.


But band members do learn routines and choreographed movements. They do that through weeks of band camp in the summer and countless more hours spent at in-school and after-school practices. Most give up at least nine Friday nights a year, some more in the playoffs.


Wait a second.


They learn a skill, spend all season perfecting it and want to show it off on the biggest stage of the season? They must be crazy.


What is it, money? Believe me, I didn’t need fed beef brisket, barbecue chicken and seafood chowder in the press box; I gladly would’ve packed my dinner – or paid for it – if it saved a few bucks and made this happen.


Plus, for the love of visiting an art museum or trying to extend the classroom to – gulp – a science fair, let’s hope it’s not financially motivated.


Is it the playing surface?


As I said before, everyone involved with allowing high school kids to use a college/professional stadium should be commended. But if you think eight halftime routines will drop Heinz Field into the bottom of the NFL in terms of footing, I hate to tell you: It’s already there.


It’s also not the tuba player’s fault there’s an insistence on having a grass field in Pittsburgh. And let’s not forget that the surface was to be resodded after yesterday’s Pitt game ... during which the Panther band got to march.


I know the feedback I’ll get from the bigwigs here: They should be fortunate to be allowed to play at Heinz Field.


Yes, I agree. But I wouldn’t be afraid to leave, either. Five-thousand fans – being generous here – and 55,000 yellow seats can make for a hollow atmosphere, an empty feeling that you wouldn’t get if you played the games at some of the top stadiums around the WPIAL.


Imagine the in-your-face, electric atmosphere that could be cultivated at places such as Elizabeth Forward, North Allegheny, Pine-Richland or South Fayette. Maybe even designate WPIAL-ready facilities by class and cycle through the facilities yearly. I know some details would have to be worked out as far as television and whatnot, but I know the bands wouldn’t have any issues.


Listen, I’m as football-obsessed as the next guy. Played four years, announced three more in college and love writing about it. But it’s a disservice to the kids who’ve worked all year for this. You wouldn’t tell the cheerleaders they could only whisper or instruct the running backs to jog. Don’t tell the marching band it can’t march.


Jason Mackey can be reached at jmackey@observer-reporter.com.


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