It sounded just like any other Saturday in the fall. The steady beat of a drumline sprang to life, cymbals clashed and blaring brass instruments joined in. The rise and fall of “Boomer Sooner” filled the afternoon air as members of the Pride of Oklahoma marching band did what they do best.
Except, this time, the band was in uncharted territory. There was no football game, and it wasn’t a stadium full of screaming fans that surrounded them but a sunny park hundreds of miles from Norman.
Though far from home, the band’s music met an equally receptive audience with the Schwammlein family. Peter, a 14-year-old music lover, stood yards from the line of performers, surrounded by dozens of his extended family members, and grinned from ear to ear as the band continued with other hits like “Go Big Red” and “Oklahoma.”
Fifteen members of OU’s marching band made the trek to Fayetteville, Arkansas, not to cheer on the football team like usual, but to support Peter in his fight against a different opponent — cancer.
“The OU fight song has taken on a new meaning for us,” said Brian Schwammlein, Peter’s dad. “Whenever I’m watching the game, hearing the OU fight song come on, I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s fight cancer too, let’s do it, come on now.’”
Pride member Brenna O’Hara said the band’s mission goes beyond its primary purpose of cheering on OU athletics, something that became evident through its Arkansas road trip.
“As a band,” O’Hara said, “our support extends beyond the team to individuals like Peter, like the fans of the university, the people who are really invested in the culture we have here.”
A different opponent
Peter can appreciate a good marching band.
He first picked up an instrument in seventh grade and now loves music so much he spent his entire summer using a computer program to compose his own songs. The high school freshman had just joined his school’s marching band when his pursuit of playing the mellophone was put on pause by a diagnosis of brain cancer, which took his younger sister Natalie’s life five years ago.
It was early September when he was supposed to play in his first band performance. That Friday, he was excited and a little nervous that he might mess up. But a CT scan that morning led to an MRI, revealing a brain tumor that called for immediate surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital two hours from home.
“I was still hopeful that I would get to come back and, even if not perform, be there for the band,” Peter said. “And then we had to drive to Little Rock that night, so I never went.”
The tumor, later determined to be malignant, was removed after an hours-long surgery two days later. Post-surgery, Peter wasn’t allowed to play his mellophone for several weeks.
Then came the radiation treatment. As the teen’s days filled with nurses, tests and hospital rooms, he was unable to spend as much time composing music and playing his instruments. Still, the Schwammleins brought a keyboard and a ukulele to their temporary Memphis apartment where they stay during treatment. The instruments are nice to have, Peter said, to help process things.
On the road
Born in Norman, where his family lived from 2000 to 2006, Peter said the Sooners are probably his favorite college team, although he’s never been a huge football fan. Still, the Schwammlein family’s ties to their old home in Norman were strong enough to elicit a large response from the community.
Michelle Sutherlin, a school counselor at Norman North High School and a close friend of the Schwammleins, said she created a Facebook page where anyone can post videos of encouragement for Peter.
“Whenever we found out (Peter) was sick, I just wanted to do whatever I could to help their family because they mean so much to me, and they’ve already been through so much,” Sutherlin said. “I reached out to some local organizations, including the Pride of Oklahoma and some local high schools, to make a video get-well card for Peter, and the Pride of Oklahoma actually took that a couple of steps farther and have done so much for him that it’s been very, very meaningful.”
Peter’s story struck a chord with Kaleigh Guess, an elementary education sophomore who plays french horn in the Pride, when she first heard it at band practice from the director. Guess lost her great-grandpa to brain cancer, so she understands the devastating effect it can have on families. After the Pride recorded a video of support to share on the Love for the Schwammleins Facebook page at Sutherlin’s request, Guess knew she wanted to do more.
“I thought it would be cool to let (Peter) know, ‘Hey, the Pride of Oklahoma is here for you, we want to cheer you on and be there for you every step of the way,’ because something like that is something that you don’t want to go through thinking that you’re unnoticed or that people don’t… know what you’re going through,” Guess said. “So I thought it would be cool if we showed him, ‘Hey, we care. We’re here for you. And we want to make sure that you get better.’”
Guess and Sutherlin arranged the details of a surprise trip for the Saturday of OU’s bye week. Brian said he thought the idea was a terrific one.
“My first response — my jaw was dropping, like, ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable. Absolutely, we’ll do whatever we can to adjust our schedule to make it work,’’’ Brian said.
When Guess announced the plan to the entire Pride, she was surprised by the amount of interest.
“At first, it was just going to be a few people from my section go up there and play for him or something like that, but as I started talking about it with more people, it caught on,” Guess said. “People were very interested in it, and so it kind of grew from there.”
Fifteen Pride members, with hefty instruments in tow, piled into cars to make the four-hour drive to Fayetteville, which turned into over seven hours after a dead car battery delayed their departure. They didn’t return to Norman until well into the early morning hours of Sunday.
“It was so much more than a pep band,” said Meagan Millier, a Pride member who made the trip to Fayetteville. “It was so much more than just driving down there, playing a couple pep tunes and then leaving. It was about seeing (Peter), talking to him and his whole family… just letting him be a normal kid for a little while.”
The OU students connected easily with Peter, whom they said they loved getting to know, through their shared love of music and marching band.
“That was just really cool for me because it was an instant bonding point where there was an immediate connection of something we both like and love,” Peter said. “That was really nice to have that.”
Brian stood nearby, beaming with pride, as his son was engulfed by a group of college students.
“Here’s, you know, our son just being surrounded by a group of college students just laughing with him, sharing stories, talking about band stuff — stuff that totally goes over my head, but they’re all understanding it, and it was a real gift,” Brian said. “Not just the music — the coming out, just getting to know them, hear their stories and make those connections.”
A lasting impact
The Pride’s visit to the home of the Arkansas Razorbacks left a lasting impact on the extended Schwammlein family, many of whom gathered at the park for the Pride performance.
“We have family that live here in Fayetteville, and they’re life-long Razorback fans, and they left that gathering, though, with OU pride — said, ‘Well, I can be a Sooner fan now, I’m all right with that,’” Brian said. “And they kept their word. They were rooting for the Sooners the following week…they got disappointed when OU lost. So that’s been fun for us, as a family.”
The effort has reached beyond the Pride, as well. Janna Martin, a human relations faculty member who knew the Schwammleins when they lived in Norman, asked her students, including athletes like Baker Mayfield, to make a video for Peter and post it on his page. Another Pride member strapped a GoPro camera on his instrument during halftime of the OU-Texas game for Peter to experience what it’s like to be in the marching band.
Peter said he thought the videos were “very cool.”
“It goes a long way,” Brian said of the supportive gestures. “It’s nice to have them on video so we can go back and watch them again or share them with a friend or say, ‘Hey, here’s somebody else wishing Peter well.’ It just creates some positive momentum in the midst of something that requires a lot of adjusting to and some unknowns, so that’s been appreciated.”
Sutherlin, an OU alumna, said she has never been more proud to be a Sooner. There’s something special about OU students, members of the Pride in particular, she said.
“I don’t even know how to describe how wonderful it made me feel to know that something that I love and care about, which is the University of Oklahoma, would turn around and do something so kind — and totally above and beyond any expectation or request — for a young man they’d never met, who lives in a different state,” Sutherlin said. “I’ve just never been prouder to be an Oklahoma Sooner.”