It's the band's first appearance at the Florida Classic since it was suspended after the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion, beaten on a parked bus after the 2011 game.
The love of Florida A&M University's band may never have been more obvious than last year. Nearly half of Classic fans skipped last year's game, largely because the famous Marching 100 would not be there.
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"I have a lot of friends who didn't come last year because the band wasn't performing, and they're coming this year," said Kevin Crum, a 1993 graduate of FAMU who lives in Orlando and was in the marching band. "There is a lot more excitement with the band coming back."
In 2011, 60,218 people filled the Florida Citrus Bowl to see FAMU face off against longtime rival Bethune-Cookman University in what has been the nation's largest football game between two historically black colleges. Last year, 32,317 attended.
This week, organizers said ticket sales were "significantly ahead" of last year's count but would not release early figures.
While the two football teams duke it out on the field, the schools' marching bands will compete for bragging rights. For many, halftime is the highlight of the event.
All eyes will be on FAMU's band, which has changed since the school revamped rules for who can join it. The goal was to prevent hazing and gain more control over the group, which totaled about 350 members in fall 2011.
This year, the FAMU band is less than half that size at 149 students.
Many will be listening to see how the smaller group compares with FAMU bands of the past, which have been featured in TV commercials, marched in presidential inaugurations and played at the Grammy Awards.
"The eyes of the world are on us," said Ronald Gray, who plays the euphonium in the band. "People are ready and anticipating what 'wow' factor we'll give them this year."
Yet Champion's parents have repeatedly said the band should have been suspended for at least a few more years — to make sure that students who were involved in hazing have left FAMU. That is critical to changing the culture of the band, they have said.
Fifteen people were charged in connection with Champion's death, including nine who have pleaded no contest to manslaughter or felony hazing. Six await trial.
Pamela and Robert Champion Sr. will not be at today's game. They held a small memorial in Orlando on Tuesday to recognize the two-year anniversary of their son's death.
There will be no mention of Champion during the band's halftime performance. However, band director Sylvester Young said the group will perform portions of two hymns in a nod to all from FAMU who have lost their lives.
Donovan Wells, longtime director of Bethune-Cookman's band, said he has seen the FAMU band progressively improve since it was able to start performing again this school year. The suspension was lifted in late June.
Even Bethune-Cookman fans are glad to see the Marching 100 return. Last year, Bethune-Cookman fans complained that the game was not as lively. They missed the back-and-forth between the bands during the game as well as the halftime rivalry.
The two university bands as well as 10 high-school bands from across the country will showcase their talent in the annual Battle of the Bands on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Amway Center.
"It's good for the game to have two opposing teams and two bands," Wells said, adding that his band members are excited about competing again with FAMU. "Our students — just about everybody in our band — have friends or former high-school classmates in the FAMU band."
Crum said he's looking forward to seeing a lot of old friends while tailgating before the game today. With the FAMU band back, he said he's sure to run into more people he knows.
"Just the excitement of getting a chance to see people you haven't seen for 15, 20 years — even if it's just 15 minutes," he said. "That's exciting."
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