I waited in the mouth of a tunnel beneath the concrete bleachers of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. Rocking side to side on the soles of my shoes, I focused on the rhythm of my breathing and scanned the stands, watching them fill, one red pixel at a time. A dream of mine was about to come true.
I was about to take the field at a Cornhuskers football game.
It was a dream I conjured when I went to my first Nebraska game as a preschooler riding on my father’s shoulders. One I had held on to since first grade, when I earned the nickname Husker Boy for my daily crayon drawings of Eric Crouch, Bobby Newcombe and Correll Buckhalter. One I had tried to visualize during a couple of weeks of practice that had prepared me for the performance, but not the moment.
Instead of wearing a red jersey and a white helmet — the combination that made up many of my childhood Halloween costumes — I wore overalls and a jacket of wool and polyester, wielding a trombone in my right hand.
I started playing trombone in fifth grade, the same year I last played organized football. That was the age I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Tommie Frazier, even though I wore his No. 15.
Eight years later, I went to the University of Nebraska, drawn there not only by an urge to stay close to home — and the football team whose results controlled my mood swings — but also by the chance to be in the marching band, which had long ago supplanted playing football among my favorite pastimes.
My first game as a member of the band, in 2010, was also Taylor Martinez’s first game as Nebraska’s starting quarterback. The announcement of his name in the starting lineup had the stadium buzzing a half-hour before kickoff.
But swaying anxiously under the bleachers, I was more concerned with getting through my first pregame performance mistake-free. As kickoff loomed ever closer, I repeated my sequence of drill moves in my head, imagining step by step my route around the field.
We had learned the routine a few weeks earlier in band camp, a week of 14-hour days spent practicing music and marching on a field molded by the footprints of Mike Rozier and Ahman Green. During camp and two weeks of morning rehearsals after school started, we spent as much time in Memorial Stadium as the football team would all season.
And now it was showtime. When I strutted onto the field for the pregame show, I eyed my marks on the turf and the time-keeping of our conductors, and tried not to be overwhelmed by the density of the red-clad crowd surrounding us.
Later, that became a difficult task. As we played the final chord of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I heard the roar of jet engines passing above — the flyover our directors had explicitly told us not to look at so that our eyes would remain on the drum majors, who would promptly lead us into the next phase of the performance.
But I realized quickly that the noise was not above me, but around me. I had mistaken the rumble of the crowd’s applause for the sound of planes flying overhead.
I realized just how loud 85,000 people could be, and it hit me that after 18 years of observing college football from 40 rows up in the stadium, I was now part of the spectacle on the field.
In the first quarter, Martinez scored on his first carry, a 46-yard scamper that set the tone in the Huskers’ 49-10 victory against Western Kentucky.
While the fans in the stadium expressed their glee with incoherent yelling and awkward high-fives, we in the band had only a second or two to celebrate. Then we began playing our fight songs — “Hail Varsity” and “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” — leading to the crowd’s excitedly off-tempo clapping and chanting of “Go, Huskers!” during the brief pauses in the music.
They were rituals I had become accustomed to as a spectator, but the change in perspective made it all a new experience.
As the game continued, I learned the rules that guided the band’s actions.
■ No sitting in the bleachers when the team is on the field.
■ No playing music if there is a penalty flag or an injury.
■ No daydreaming; once a play ends, our focus must shift to the drum majors, whose hand signals tell us what to play.
Gone were my days of idle observing, of watching Nebraska beat Pittsburgh on a blocked field goal in 2005; or celebrating the Huskers’ 300th consecutive sold-out game, in 2009; or rooting for comebacks that fell short against Texas in 2002 and Virginia Tech in 2008. The trombone became my free ticket into every game, but it also made me an active participant in the game-day ritual.
After the game, the band assembled on the field and marched through a tunnel, up a ramp and out of the stadium, dancing to drum cadences back to the campus’s music building. We passed children sitting on their parents’ shoulders, girls sporting temporary tattoos of red N’s on their cheeks, boys wearing red jerseys.
At that moment, they might have been dreaming of becoming the next Taylor Martinez.
But who knows? Maybe someday they will exchange a mouth guard for a mouthpiece and still find themselves able to be a part of the game-day experience in Lincoln.
Zach Tegler, a senior at Nebraska, was a copy editing intern at The New York Times this summer.