ATLANTA — This year’s MEAC/SWAC Challenge featured several firsts in the game’s 15-year existence.
It was the first time the MEAC/SWAC Challenge was played in front of a sold-out crowd with 23,333 fans in attendance. And it was the first time the bands were featured on a black college pregame show surrounded by hundreds of curious, tailgating fans shortly before making their entrance into the stadium.
It was also the first time the Jackson State University Tigers and the Bethune-Cookman University Wildcats had shared a field during a matchup in 30 years, which means the battle in the stands would be just as intense as the one on the field. The Sonic Boom of the South and the Marching Wildcats have both seen No. 1 spots in the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings, so leaders and band members knew this would be the perfect way to kick off the season.
“I’ve seen Jackson State over the last 30 years, and I’ve been impressed with them every time I’ve seen them,” said Donovan Wells, director of bands at Bethune-Cookman. “They have a unique style that’s different from ours, and it should be. We have a style that’s different from theirs, and it should be. But it’s both entertaining. I was pleased with both bands today, and I think the crowd was too. You got your money’s worth today. Football and band, everybody got their money’s worth.”
and last but not least…the @SonicBoomOTS pic.twitter.com/F6amPKQHBa
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) September 1, 2019
Dowell Taylor, an assistant professor of music at Jackson State, echoed those sentiments about Bethune-Cookman’s band program earlier in the week, sharing mutual respect for the program that Wells is leading at B-C.
“We have a lot of respect for Bethune-Cookman’s program,” Taylor said. “They’ve been consistently producing a fine program. They’re one of the best marching aggregates around the country, and we’re really excited just to share our different styles to the nation. We have nothing but respect for Bethune-Cookman.”
And for the bands to remain two of the best, the work for the pregame show, entertainment during the game and halftime, all the way to the bands duking it out during the 5th Quarter, started weeks before the big game.
Taylor said preparation to get the bands ready for the season began in early August with Jackson State’s band camp. Preparation for the MEAC/SWAC Challenge focused a lot on freshman band members, most of whom would be experiencing their first game in front of a larger audience.
“When we come out of band camp, we’ll have a lot of freshmen who will look up in the stands and see 40 [thousand] or 50,000 people, and sometimes they’ll have stage fright,” Taylor said. “So we’re working on that. We want to get them prepared for that.”
Nearly 700 miles away in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Marching Wildcats were feeling prepared for the big event, until another big event presented its own set of problems. As Hurricane Dorian developed into a larger storm headed for Florida, Wells and staff members had to make important travel decisions to get the band to Atlanta on time while keeping all of its members safe.
“We evacuated Friday. We don’t know when we’re going back,” Wells said. “Our school is closed all week, but sometimes band is a good escape for the kids. Doing what they love to do, having fun, performing and practicing kind of takes their mind from the hurricane coming.
“I really feel for the kids. We have a strong contingency in our band from the Bahamas, and they got hit real hard today, so I know their minds are wondering how their families fared.”
But whatever dilemmas the bands were facing before the game, fans wouldn’t be able to tell. Problems were temporarily put aside to give the crowd the performances they deserved. Fans traveled far and wide to support both teams, and the bands were sure to repay them for their dedication by putting on shows that kicked off the season the right way.
For the halftime show and the 5th Quarter, both bands provided the crowd with a mixture of old school and new — hits from DeBarge’s “I Like It” to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” (the Marching Wildcats complemented the song with a horse formation on the field).
And although biases shine bright when fans answer the question of who won the battle, Sunday’s performances showed that it’ll be tough to outperform either band as this season continues.
And we’re just getting started.