It’s an hour before the Niceville Eagle Pride Marching Band kids return home to the High School Campus.
A two-hour flight delay meant a nighttime arrival in the cold-for-Florida weather.
Still, parents filled the senior parking lot in anticipation. They couldn’t wait to welcome their kids home.
“Great job,” said Eagle Pride parent Brett Sanders, ” we thank everybody. All of the chaperones, everybody involved. Just a tremendous job.”
Finally, taking the long way ’round, the busses file in front of the band hall *nats* and slowly roll to a stop.
*nats* the doors open and 250 maroon-clad teenagers hustle off the busses.
A crowd forms at the gate – their Rose Bowl Cap-wearing leader, Dan Wooten, marches up the 20 or so steps to unlock the hall and let the kids in.
And just like that – the 22-month odyssey ends.
But it also crystallizes in the hearts and minds of the students like Andy Swierzbin.
“It was excellent,” said Band President Andy Swierzbin, “turning that corner and seeing all of the tv [cameras] and all of the people, it brought an unnatural experience. It’s just something that you can’t get anywhere else.
Senior Cannon Stringfellow agrees. “The experience in Pasadena, California was definitely one of the coolest experiences of my life,” Stringfellow said, “When I was walking down the road in the parade, it’s just something I’ll never forget – seeing so many people in the grandstands and all of the TV companies filming us.” Other than the actual marching – Stringfellow added the band festival, a celebration of music that included all of the bands in the parade, was an incredible experience.
“There were some moments from the Rose Parade that I believe I will remember for the rest of my life,” said senior Taylor Brown, “during the Rose Bowl Parade, we went under an overpass and we played Niceville’s fight song in California – and it was so cool to be able to do that.”
“It was quite an adventure,” said Steering Committee Member Steve Milz, ” we had jam-packed days. We were up early and in bed late. But, overall, they were professional, courteous, and adaptive. When we had to make changes on the fly, they just went with the flow, did what we needed. We couldn’t have asked for better kids to take 2,000 miles across the country.”
Students grab their things and leave with their families into the winter night. Back in his office, Dan Wooten sits in his chair in his office.
One of the 250 band members helped him get through the last 22 months of preparation: his daughter, Isabel.
“It’s beyond description,” Wooten said, “I will say that there were lots of times when the going would get tough that I would remember that, ‘hey, you are going to get to do this with Isabel.’ And it would get me through some of those hard times.”
On his desk sits a blanket – stitched by a grandparent of one of the band members and signed by every kid in his care the last six days.
“You know, you don’t go into this thinking this is what’s going to happen – and when it does, it just means more.”
The six-day tour included much more than the five-and-a-half-or-so mile march. Students also got to visit a theme park, go to an L-A Kings hockey game (where they witnessed Band Director Wooten’s driving of a Zamboni – another once-in-a-lifetime experience, and dined aboard the Queen Mary Cruise Ship.
Mid Bay News’ McKinsey Lamm also contributed to this report.