COLUMN: Welcome back, band, cheer, dance and JROTC

Football was weird without y'all, so welcome back to Friday Night Lights.

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  • | 10:54 a.m. September 23, 2020
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When I stood on the sidelines at Apopka High School’s football field last Thursday, things felt both familiar and completely alien at the same time.

I was there to cover Ocoee’s big opening game to start the season, but while things on the field gave me a peace I’ve not felt in months, in the stands, the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could be easily seen.

I had never been to a game at Apopka before last week, but I’ve always known the folks up there love their football and often pack that stadium all the way to the press box. But Thursday, the stands were mostly bare, and the glaring absence of the marching band, cheer team and dance team was obvious.

The off-field pageantry was gone, and the atmosphere that should have been there was only filled in by my own memories of bands blasting fight songs and cheerleaders leading crowds. Sure, there was a speaker set up in the far end zone, which blasted pre-recorded music and cheers, but it wasn’t the same — it lacked the soul of the real thing.

With every first down or touchdown, there was a smattering of applause by those in attendance and quick blast of music from the loud speaker, but otherwise, most of the noise came from the players and coaches on the sideline. Being able to hear myself actually think is always disconcerting, but at a football game? It’s absolutely surreal.

Although other sports are dealing with similar issues — such as the sparse crowd at the Dr. Phillips/West Orange volleyball game I covered earlier in the week — those sports aren’t as associated with other groups such as cheer and band. If I’m being honest — as someone who has played music since middle school — getting to hear a live band perform is one of the best parts of a traditional Friday night.

That’s why when Orange County Public Schools announced it was completely locking out band, cheer, dance and JROTC from the football season, I felt a mix of emotions that ranged from, “OK, I guess we need to keep these kids safe,” to, “But we need them, because you can’t have Friday night without them, and they deserve the chance to play.”

I wasn’t the only one who debated this, but over the course of a few weeks, parents and students in those programs blew up social media and rallied in the name of these overlooked groups. I covered the rally at Lake Eola where students and parents fought through an hourlong rain storm to voice their desires to return to the field.

On Thursday, while I photographed and live-tweeted the Apopka/Ocoee game, I was thinking about these students — especially the seniors, many of whom will never perform again. Then, a text set my phone off with some news that I did not expect. A friend of mine had just spoken with Doug Patterson — OCPS’ senior administrator for athletics & activities — and the district was going to allow those groups to once again become part of game-day traditions. 

Right now, there aren’t many specifics, but a screenshot of an email sent by Windermere High School Principal Douglas Guthrie could give us an idea of what schools will look at doing. In the email, Guthrie said groups will be allowed to only perform at home games, and each will be limited — 20 cheerleaders, 20 dancers and a pep band consisting of 60 members.

Many marching bands in the area consist of more than 200 student-musicians, so they will have to adjust to this limitation. My hope is upperclassmen will be considered a priority.

But at this point — just like with the sports itself — something is better than nothing, right? All I know is I’ve been spoiled my whole life with games filled with music, cheer and pageantry, and although life continues to be wildly abnormal in every other way, many folks are looking forward to the pomp and circumstance so integral to the Friday Night Lights tradition.


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