The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Nobody keeps time like marching band members, who waited 658 long days between opportunities to trot onto the stadium turf.

Author: Elijah Grammer ’21, ’22MNA

Ask any current or former member of the Notre Dame band to name their favorite part of a home football game day, and you’ll almost certainly hear about “trotting.” That’s the term for a particular style of march step used to propel the band forward with lightning speed. It’s both a larger and quicker step than normally used in marching bands, which allows the band to cover a lot of ground quickly. Individually, a marcher feels a little bit like a gazelle—you spring forward on the balls of your feet, almost jumping into the step, bouncing across the field. From a distance, it looks like running, but it’s done in time to a drum cadence and the steps are equally-sized, meaning the band moves as one unit swiftly and with precision. I think it’s the closest thing to flying possible using only your two feet.

While the band trots a few times during its game day performances, when we talk about trot, we really mean trotting out of the legendary Notre Dame Stadium tunnel for pregame. I can still remember the rush of my first time, packed inside next to nearly four hundred of my bandmates. Trotting down, the little window of light at the far end got bigger and bigger, until I dashed through it and saw Notre Dame Stadium in all of its blue-and-green clad autumn glory. To quote the late Ned Beatty’s character in the beloved movie Rudy, it was “the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.”

In a practical sense, it’s a quick way to get 380-odd band members onto the field. But really, it’s a way to kick things off with an explosion of energy. It’s tough to describe the feeling of trotting out of the tunnel on a game day. It’s a rush. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s electric. I could list every cliché used to describe excitement and invent a few more, and it still wouldn’t be enough. It is all of these at once and more.

To me, this brief moment post-trot was always the defining moment of a game day. In so many ways, this moment is the crowning achievement of the hours put in all week, all season, all the time spent learning music since middle school. All the work to be here, on the field, in Notre Dame Stadium. That special feeling Notre Dame students get in the weeks leading up to the first game? Amplify that tenfold for band members waiting for their first trot of the season.

But for 658 days between the last game of 2019 and the first game of 2021, there was no trot, no crowning moment, no catching your breath on the field. There was only the wait.

COVID-19 altered so many parts of our lives we had considered fundamental. How it affected the routine of the Notre Dame band pales in comparison to the scope and scale of the virus’ ravaging. But band members dedicate so much of their lives to music and serving the University through it that having a season ripped away is real and damaging. During the pandemic-altered year, the band was there, but the energy, the excitement, the pageantry of a game day was all missing. Game days became yet another part of our lives held outside the present—parts enjoyed in the past and hopefully to be reclaimed in the future, but conspicuously absent from the now. We would wait, 658 days, to have another chance to trot again. For most of my classmates, though, there was no 658-day wait — there was only a quiet end, unceremonious and stark. I was lucky; knowing by the spring of 2021 that I would be returning to Notre Dame for a fifth year, I could look forward to a triumphant return to the field, headlined by that next, glorious, long-awaited trot.

In the days between trots we had nationwide protests, a presidential election, a life-saving vaccine, and a deadly variant. We all learned terms like “community spread” and “comorbidities.” Notre Dame football beat a top-ranked team for the first time in a quarter century, and Notre Dame women’s basketball replaced a Hall of Fame coach. South Bend’s place on the national political map, established during the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, continued with the Supreme Court appointment of Amy Coney Barrett. I graduated from college and started graduate school. Friends left for jobs and Ph.D.s across the country. Engagements were announced and marriage vows exchanged. The world, my world, changed dramatically in 658 days. All the while, with everything around me reinforcing how special a trot had become to me., I longed for that glorious moment — back on the field, just out of the tunnel, in Notre Dame Stadium, on game day.

Band Trotting Cashore
Matt Cashore ’94

So how is it that a moment so magical, so fleeting, anticipated for so long, felt so… normal?

The morning of the first home game of the 2021 season dawned just like any other. I slipped back into the routine as if it were November 2019 again. I went to morning practice, grabbed breakfast, donned my uniform, got my instrument, went to the game. We rallied, squished together in our beloved tunnel. We trotted. It all happened, just as it had my first three years. It all felt natural, normal, routine even. And I was utterly confused. How could this moment I had built up in my mind for 658 days have passed just like that?

The light at the end of the pandemic and the light at the end of the stadium tunnel had merged in my mind. I had convinced myself that somehow, being back on the field would signify the end of COVID. The chaos, confusion and angst of the previous 18 months would vanish, cathartically poured into the music and the marching and the excitement of a football game. Instead, that first game day back felt like eating a favorite comfort food. Delicious, deeply satisfying, but hardly exciting. Hardly cathartic. After 658 days, there was little sense of triumph, of fulfillment, of the bad thing having ended. Rather I felt a clear and simple sense of return.

It dawned on me in the hours after the game, though, that this was precisely the point. Though a special and unique privilege, trotting had become part of my routine, a high point in the ebbs and flows of my life as a college student. If I learned one thing from spending my senior year in a pandemic, it’s how contingent routine can be. Significant parts of our daily lives are supported by a vast array of factors that, if they were even slightly different, would mean our day-to-day would be hard to recognize. We should never lose sight of just how remarkable it is that we are able to do the everyday things we do—routinely, through force of habit, without really thinking about them

I looked forward to trotting again precisely because it represented life untouched by COVID. Instead of existing in my past or future, trotting again became a part of my now. Reclaiming the routine was what was important. The social and emotional pain of pandemic life—isolation from friends and loved ones, alteration or removal of daily activities, anxiety over the future—aren’t going to be healed in glorious moments, but in carefully, intentionally rebuilding daily routines piece by piece, reconnecting with friends, deciding anew what is important in life.

Trotting is still important to me, but now I understand why in a way that had escaped me before. Trotting is the way we band members connect most profoundly to Notre Dame football. At Notre Dame, football is far more than the game, the tailgates, the trophies, the championships. It’s friends, reunited after months or years or decades spent on individual journeys, a reminder of our emotional and spiritual ties. It’s a place that keeps pulling us back, inviting us to rewalk the paths of our younger days and rediscover the passionate spark that drew us there in the first place. Notre Dame football is our vehicle to the Notre Dame community writ large. Being there, just out of the tunnel, in the stadium, surrounded by Irish fans, is to feel that community in the most visceral of ways. It’s all about connection.

Connection was harder than ever to find during the height of the pandemic, and I realized that’s what returning to the field meant to me. I wasn’t celebrating a victory — I was starting to rebuild, to figure out how to live in the world again. In retrospect, that feeling of return to the familiar was exactly what I needed from the first trot in 658 days.

Really, it was never about trotting out of the tunnel. It was about running into who I am and who I want to become.

Elijah Grammer works in the nonprofit sector in his hometown of South Bend. Elijah played sousaphone, or “bass,” in the Notre Dame band from 2017 to 2022, and received the Brett M. Ensor band service award his senior year. In his spare time, he writes the blog Emergency Caffeine on various topics, including Notre Dame athletics.