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April 24, 2013Eddie showed me a few things then handed me the sword and asked if I wanted to try.
Like, with the real thing?
To say that the football nerd in me didn't melt into a gooey pile of happiness would be a lie.
Heisman trophy winners had held that sword. Pete Carroll had hoisted it in victory, leading the band in "Conquest" after Rose Bowls and national championships.
And there it was, in my hands.
It was heavy.
In April of 2009, I tried out for Drum Major for the USC "Spirit of Troy" Trojan Marching Band. The entire process was supposed to be somewhat of a social suicide mission. But proverbial martyrdom sounded all right as long as I learned how to wield a sword.
No female has ever led the Trojan Marching Band and I was only the second - and quite possibly the smallest - to ever audition. But I thought there was some sort of purpose by putting my skinny, little neck on the line. I wanted to show the band the kind of leadership I thought it should have, whether I was going to be the actual leader or not.
I wasn't there to force my beliefs on anyone. I didn't want to demand respect.
But I was hoping to command it. To earn it. To show a certain amount of respect to my peers, despite any differences, in hopes that they would return it.
And thus, the campaign officially began when a close friend started the obligatory support group on Facebook.
"Vote for Tammy Trojan: Stephanie Graves for Drum Major."
Tammy. As in the female version of "Tommy Trojan." I guess it would do.
The audition is a three-part process displayed in front of the entire band who then votes on their next leader. It takes the entire spring semester to train for the event and people are evaluating your every move in the mean time.
The potential drum major gives the usual vocal commands, with the sword and a whistle, in order to prove he -- or possibly she -- can command the band even in the middle of the most raucous of stadiums. Subsequently, with a 10-piece band on hand, the candidate performs his role in the traditional pregame show. Marching. Sword work. The whole nine yards.
Except instead of having 300 people ready to charge into figurative battle with you, you have 600 eyes deciding whether they like what they see or not.
Then there is the finale: the speech.
And I happened to be a communication major in a sea of engineers and aspiring neuroscientists.
So I wrote down what had popped into my head months ago when I was simply wondering what I would say if I did try out.
I told the story of how USC went from being the "Fighting Methodists" to "Trojans" who "Fight On."
Legend had it, there was a journalist from the LA Times who was covering a track meet.
USC was facing Stanford and it was by no means a fair fight. USC was expected to lose.
And they still did, but those underdogs did well enough to earn the respect of the writer who said that USC reminded him of the ancient warriors of Troy.
They knew how to "fight on" just like the Trojans.
But it was more than just a nice little slogan, I explained. It was a way a life that came with a certain standard, a certain set of values to live by.
The day of the audition arrived. I distinctly remember performing the traditional pre-game routine and feeling like my lunch no longer wanted to be a part of the process anymore. I gave my speech.
Then the six other candidates, all young men, did too.
That day they narrowed it down to two candidates, neither of which was me. It was until a few months later that I discovered I finished fifth out of seven.
Not dead last.
I was OK with that. I was OK with the physical labor and the emotional exhaustion. I was OK with every lesson I learned and prayed I would never forget. And, to my surprise, my peers were OK with it too.
Some of them even respected it. Including the drum major.
Later that year, the band traveled to South Bend for the every-other-year trip to Notre Dame.
We stayed in Chicago and during our free time some of us wandered into a mall downtown. There was a little souvenir store inside with a rack of "dream circles." They were little charms that you could put on a piece of jewelry. Some said "hope" or "wish" and then the rest were names in alphabetical order. One in particular caught my eye.
Four years later, that little circle is still on my key chain.
Stephanie Graves is a freelance sportswriter and Trojan Marching Band alum working for the Walt Disney Co.