The music announced the team long before the massive crowd could even see the Baltimore Ravens.
In the bitter cold, crushed together in a unified mission — to see the Super Bowl champions at their victory parade Tuesday, Feb. 5 in Baltimore — parade-goers erupted into cheers and chants at the sounds of the Ravens' unofficial anthem: "Seven Nation Army," by the White Stripes.
The music grew louder, heralding the proximity of the team, and leading off the parade was Baltimore's Marching Ravens. The more-than-300-strong, all-volunteer band that has been playing for the team — in its many forms over the years — and its city since 1947.
Many of those musicians are Howard County residents, and for them, the purple pride extends far beyond the city limits. It's a pride that travels a two-way street: the only time the crowd cheered louder than after first laying eyes — and ears — on the band, was for the Baltimore Ravens themselves.
It was the experience of a lifetime, said trumpeter Aaron Eddy, 29, of Columbia, who has been with the band since 2009.
"We were right where we belonged — with the Ravens," he said. "It won't be anything I'll ever forget."
It's much the same at football games, several musicians said.
"You're part of the whole game-day excitement," said Leslie Barnett, 52, of Columbia, who has been a member of the flag line since 2007. "When we're marching from Camden Yards to the stadium, and we're doing the fight song, the whole crowd is yelling, 'fight, fight, fight!' It's a very powerful feeling. ...Being part of the playoff game at home was a high I can't even explain. ... It was like, 'we're a part of this. '"
Playing at halftime, Eddy said, is "perpetually surreal."
"You never get used to it," he said. "It's nearly 72,000 people, and all eyes are on us."
'We wouldn't have made it'
The musicians aren't the only ties the band has to Howard County.
For several years, when the band was without a football team or a practice facility, the musicians were "nomads," practicing wherever they were able, said Band President John Ziemann. That changed in 1987, three years after the Colts left Baltimore, when Howard County officials offered the fairgrounds for the band's use. They stayed until 2004.
"We were offered a home," Ziemann said of Howard County. "If not for the hospitality of the Howard County Fairgrounds, we wouldn't have made it."
The band now rehearses at the Ravens training facility in Owings Mills. To this day, every year the Marching Ravens return to perform for the first day of the Howard County Fair.
"We don't forget them," Ziemann said. "We can never say enough about those wonderful people."
In the more than 60 years of the band's existence, it has played for three different football teams — the two iterations of the Baltimore Colts, as well as the Ravens. For many years it was without a team entirely, but the band played on. The Colts Marching Band, as it was known until 1997, performed at area events and 30 NFL games, Ziemann said, and played an important role in helping bring the Ravens to Baltimore.
While much has changed for the band, the legacy continues, said tuba player Matt Kircher, 28, of Columbia.
"The band has been a really important cultural link between the franchises," he said. "(The band) was instrumental in building grassroot support in the community ... and all throughout the seasons, the band has had a role."
Kircher's wife, Elyse, 27, a sousaphone player, agreed.
"This makes Baltimore special," she said. "Not a lot of cities have had two NFL teams, and there are still Colts fans in Baltimore. The band is what ties that long history together, and the band continues to keep that history alive."
A family affair
Media touted Super Bowl XLVII as a family affair, pitting Ravens coach John Harbaugh against his younger brother, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. But off the field, the Marching Ravens consider themselves family, too.
"Everyone is really tight-knit," said Mackenzie Snyder, 16, a junior at Oakland Mills High School and cymbal player in the Marching Ravens.
It's not just the feeling of family — it's actual family for Snyder. Her father, Richard Snyder, plays electric bass in the band, and is head of the rhythm department, and she joined because of him.
"We don't get a lot of interaction during the game, because we're in different sections, but it's a good father-daughter thing to do," said Snyder, 44, of Columbia. "We get more time together driving to and from practices and the games, and we're closer than we would be otherwise."
The Kirchers, too, are family borne of a marching band. The graduates of Howard County high schools (he's a Centennial High School alum; she's a graduate of Mt. Hebron High School) met while marching at University of Maryland, College Park, and are expecting their first child in June.
"I hope my kids get to have this experience," said Elyse Snyder, who has been on maternity leave from the band since November 2012. "It's a magical experience, marching on the field, and the experiences we've had in the band are things I would love for my child to have."