By Kristin Miller, Grady Sports Bureau
As the University of Georgia Redcoat Marching Band rushes onto the Sanford Stadium field before a football game, a rush of adrenaline pulses through the crowd. Fans loudly chant the UGA fight song while rhythmically waving red pom-poms in the air.
After minutes of exuberant cheering, the packed stadium suddenly falls silent. The PA announcer instructs the spectators to look toward the southwest corner of the stadium, where a single trumpeter stands at attention. The fans turn and point to the solo redcoat, and the first 14 notes of the “Battle Hymn” pierce the quiet.
“I wasn’t nervous until everyone started pointing at me,” Redcoat sophomore Lillie Smith said of her experience playing the solo — often called the “Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation” — before the Troy game last September. “It was the most intense feeling of my entire life.”
Smith’s goal since middle school was to be the solo trumpeter during the pregame ritual.
“When I was really young I came to my first home Georgia game, and I saw the person that was playing the solo,” Smith said. “I’ve been playing trumpet since I was 10, and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ So when I finally got the chance to, I took it.”
Trumpeters go through a rigorous audition before being granted the solo. Any trumpet player who has been in the Redcoat band for at least one year can try out. Staffers turn their backs on the players to create a blind audition process, and in the end, usually only three to five trumpeters get the part.
“That’s usually the number of players we wind up being really happy with as far as the performance of the solo,” said Brett Bawcum, associate director of the Redcoat band. “(The piece) is brutally difficult, especially with the nerves and everything else.”
This prestigious pregame tradition began as a student’s musical hobby. In 1987, Redcoat saxophone player Jeff Simmons decided to rearrange the tune of “Glory,” which is the song played after every UGA score. He slowed the melody, giving the originally upbeat music a more dramatic tone.
The piece was immediately popular among the band, and it was played for fans in the student center just outside Sanford Stadium before the football team entered the field. In 2000, Bawcum decided the pregame routine needed an alteration. With some hesitation, he decided to work the “Battle Hymn” into the show.
“I just didn’t expect that a slow piece of music would gain the popularity that it has,” Bawcum said. “In a pregame show you try to keep the intensity up, you try to keep tempos high so people get excited. I wasn’t really sure there would be an appetite for another slow piece of music.”
Although the piece is slow, it certainly does not lack intensity. As 92,746 fans point toward the soloist and wait for the song to play, it seems as if the entire crowd is holding its breath in anticipation. Pointing is a key theme of the performance, but the origins of the tradition are unknown.
“My guess is — because most cool things happen organically — people were looking trying to find the soloist and they pointed and everybody just sort of started pointing,” Bawcum said.
The crowd points at the trumpeter for the duration of the song, but the focus is not on the soloist the entire time. After the 14-note solo is played, the lone trumpeter’s contribution to the show is over. The crowd erupts into cheers, and the fans turn their attention to the video board.
Bawcum decided an effective way to add excitement was to create a video montage of famous Georgia football plays. Bawcum helped edit the video, which made its debut in 2000. The UGA athletic department has since taken over the editing.
The first half of the video shows historic UGA football plays, including Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker bulldozing over the Tennessee defense en route to his first collegiate touchdown. The latter half of the video shows more recent plays, and it occasionally includes key moments from the current season. Bawcum knew a video compilation would be critical to the performance’s success, and fans agree the highlights are a nice touch.
“I enjoy seeing all the plays that have been on the video board,” said John Withers, a 1963 UGA graduate who has regularly attended games since 1959. “I’ve seen most of them live.”
Perhaps more captivating than watching the famous plays is hearing the legendary, gravelly “voice of the Bulldogs” narrate the video. Larry Munson, who died in 2011, was Georgia’s radio play-by-play announcer for 42 years.
Bawcum wrote the script and met Munson at a local radio station studio weeks before the 2000 season began to record the voiceover. Bawcum said Munson just considered it another recording, and neither of them expected the narration to be so special.
“I think it is a very nice tribute to him, and the fans enjoy hearing him again,” Withers said. “Munson was an exciting voice, so he helps build the excitement of the game.”
Bawcum has had a hand in directing all aspects of the “Battle Hymn,” but one detail was slightly out of his control. Isolating the trumpeter from the rest of the band has always been part of the song’s performance. When the show moved into Sanford Stadium, the soloist stood in the southwest corner to help minimize the delay between the trumpet’s sound and the broadcast over the stadium’s speaker.
What started as a student’s personal project has become one of the more popular pregame traditions featured between the hedges. Even on a hot fall day, it is not uncommon for fans to experience a cold chill as the trumpeter sounds the first 14 notes of the solo. The powerful song, matched with the nostalgic video, electrifies the crowd and signifies that another football Saturday in Athens finally is underway.