For many, New Year’s Day meant a day off from work and watching college football on TV.
An area marching band, meanwhile, took part in the spectacle of the Sugar Bowl and brought 15 minutes of fame to their slice of Fort Bend County.
The 234-member Stafford High School Marching Spartans band performed at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans during halftime of the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl between the Georgia Bulldogs and Baylor Bears.
They also got the chance to perform in the Sugar Bowl Parade on New Year’s Eve and unfold the giant American Flag during pregame.
“I knew it was going to be amazing, but I didn’t grasp just how amazing it would be standing up there with 80,000 people watching,” junior clarinet player Philynn Dinh said.
The Marching Spartans have taken home numerous honors from UIL competitions during director Rod Rodriguez’s 15 years at the school, but had never played on a stage like the Sugar Bowl. They were one of just eight bands hand-picked from around the nation to take part in the halftime performance.
“It’s no surprise that the Sugar Bowl chose such a talented instructor and dedicated group of students to perform at halftime of this prime-time event,” SMSD Superintendent Robert Bostic said. “This was an experience that the students involved and the entire Stafford community will never forget.”
Hopefuls typically apply for opportunities such as the Sugar Bowl performance about a year out, according to Rodriguez. The
Spartans did not initially apply, but opportunity knocked nonetheless. Just as the school year was wrapping up last May, Rodriguez received a call from the Sugar Bowl committee inquiring about the band’s availability for the event.
Officials had seen videos of the Marching Spartans’ past performances online and liked what they saw. Rodriguez could not say “yes” fast enough.
“I remember my experience back in high school, and I wanted my kids to experience that same feeling of looking up and seeing the audience out there yelling and screaming when you do something good,” he said. “It’s an experience that you’ll never forget, and that’s something I wanted to instill in my students.”
Paying it forward
However, a major snag remained as initial costs for the trip ran more than $1,000 per student. As a Title I school with a percentage of low-income students, only a small contingent of Stafford’s band would be able to afford it. That didn’t sit right with Rodriguez, who reached out to the Stafford City Council for help in attempts to lower student cost enough for full band inclusion.
Newly-elected board member Alice Chen and longtime Mayor Leonard Scarcella eventually took the reins for the campaign, which raised more than $80,000 despite having barely six months to gather funds.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Chen came to the United States on a full scholarship in the late 1970s before earning her MBA. To do so, however, required a grant from a friend in order to move to the U.S. After watching band practices during the scorching Texas summer and conversations with band members anticipating the trip, she knew she had to pay the opportunity forward.
“I earned the scholarship, but somebody else had the heart to help a poor student come to this country and earn the American Dream. In that moment, I felt like I wanted to do my best for the students,” she said. “This is something that was a dream for them. Somebody helped me to complete my dream, so I put my heart into this project. … I will put my heart into this city and this school. In a way, it’s a mission from God.”
Living the dream
The band received donations from community members as well as area businesses such as Walmart and Classic Chevrolet of Sugar Land. Students were presented with a check during the Nov. 11 board meeting.
“I knew a lot of people cared about the band, but it was surprising because I didn’t think people would want us to go like that,” senior Chellcy Webster said. “I wasn’t going to be able to afford it when the offer was first extended, so I’m thankful for that. I really wanted to go.”
The experience was surreal for Dinh, who holds New Orleans in special regard as her father’s hometown and has traveled there on multiple occasions.
“(Being there) made me realize that this opportunity was once in lifetime, and I took it,” she said. “I took it, and if I hadn’t, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
Added Rodriguez: “I’ve been at Stafford now for 15 years, and I’ve never seen the community come out and support us the way they did on this. There’s not a word that could put how I feel.”
So there they were, in front of 80,000 faces inside the Superdome and millions more watching on television. The Spartans were a long way from home but still in their element.
“I had never been to a football game in a big stadium like that,” Webster said. “For (that many) people to actually pay attention was an amazing experience.”