For the twirling Foehlinger family, today's final Nebraska home game marks the end of an era — a time, so to speak, to pass the baton.
Rachel Foehlinger, the youngest of four siblings to have twirled with the Cornhusker Marching Band, will help lead her bandmates into Memorial Stadium for the final time.
“It will be a mix of a lot of emotions,” said Rachel, in her fifth year as an NU baton twirler. “I'm thankful for the happy time I've had here. It will be sad leaving, but it's time for someone else to have this amazing experience.”
She was about 10, she said, when she watched siblings Tina, Tami and Bobby twirling with the Husker band.
She loved the pregame tradition of the band's march across campus and up 10th Street. Generations of band members have done so, singing “The Band Song,” based on the music of “Song of the Vagabonds.”
The 301-member band known as The Pride of All Nebraska proudly sings:
Hear the trumpets playin',
hear the crowd a-sayin'
NU Band is on parade!
Hear the trombones blowin',
hear the drums a-rollin',
NU Band is on parade!
Sound out, sound out,
sound out loud and clear!
Let the team all know
the band is here. Sons of
old Nebraska, if someone
should ask ya, we're the
Scarlet and the Cream.
Rachel recalls the first time she marched through throngs of fans toward the stadium in her uniform, singing that song. “It was a dream come true.”
Inside the stadium, band members gather under the stands for another ritual, a “Go, Big Red” chant that pumps them up to give it their all. Then they burst onto the field.
“From that moment on,” Rachel said, “it's constant adrenaline.”
A member of a world-champion baton-twirling troupe, Sue's Stepperettes, she laughs in recalling that while warming up before one Husker game, she hit herself with her fast-spinning baton and was afraid she had broken her nose.
She hadn't, and there was no blood. But it stunned her.
“I think the sun was in my eyes,” she said. “The baton whacked me. I had to shake it off.”
The Foehlinger family, from Ralston, says Rachel was born with a baton in her hand.
Her mother, Sue Foehlinger, started the Stepperettes in 1973. For years, more than 400 students a year — mostly girls — have received lessons in baton twirling, dance and pompom.
The average stay, Sue said, is about five years, but some stay 10 to 15. She hasn't counted the total number of students, but it's in the thousands.
Every year she attends weddings of former Stepperettes. Invariably, the bride and friends join in a dance they learned while in the troupe.
Students learn discipline, showmanship and musicianship. Advanced students enter competitions.
The Stepperettes are two-time world champions and hope to defend their title next year in Italy.
Some members, including Rachel, marched in the 2010 Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. A documentary about the organization was produced last year, titled “Twirl Girls.”
For the Foehlingers, it's a family affair. Sue's husband, Bob, who works in the insurance industry, serves as the Stepperettes' business manager and travel planner, as well as an occasional humorous “prop.”
Once he was led onstage wearing a striped shirt and sunglasses and was introduced as “The Blind Referee.” (As with gymnastics and ice skating, judging in twirling is subjective and open to criticism.)
Son Ryan, who teaches French at Millard North, also helps out.
The other four sibs threw themselves into twirling.
Tina became Miss Nebraska 2001 and displayed her twirling skills in the Miss America talent competition. She had joined twin Tami and brother Bobby in marching with the NU band in the 2001 Rose Bowl parade.
Bobby, also a gymnast, performed back handsprings the entire route. “By the end,” Sue said, “his hands looked like hamburger.”
Bobby was a magnetic performer and dynamic public speaker, and he was set to return in the fall of 2003 as the Cornhusker band's featured twirler.
That spring, he was driving to Kansas City, Mo., on Interstate 29 when a vehicle crossed the median, went airborne and landed on his car. About 2,200 filled the Ralston High gymnasium for his funeral. He was 21.
“Bobby had stood out, being a guy, and got a lot of notoriety on the world level,” Sue said. “It's been 10 years, but there's not a competition I judge or a place I go without his name coming up multiple times. People just loved watching him twirl.”
The Foehlingers traveled to Denver for Thanksgiving to see Tina's new baby, but they booked a Thursday night flight home so they can be in Lincoln for Rachel's final home game.
Sue is proud of all her Stepperette twirlers, and a few have gained prominent roles. Jennifer Curtis spent two years twirling at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and then two years for NU. Leah Woodland twirled for the University of Arizona.
Rachel isn't the sole twirler this year for Nebraska. The other is freshman Morgan Miller of Hollidaysburg, Pa.
They don't receive scholarships, but their handmade costumes are paid for.
The band, under director Anthony M. Falcone, rehearses each school day at 7 a.m. and puts in a full day when there is a game, including a two-hour rehearsal.
About 85 percent of the band members are from Nebraska. Seniors will be introduced today, including drum majors Andrew Kroeger of Omaha, Ali Malik of Lincoln and Nicholas Raimondi of Deerfield, Ill.
Rachel, who graduates next May with a major in advertising and a minor in dance, will go to work full time for the Stepperettes, joining her mother and sister Tami.
Rachel said she was fortunate to have become a band twirler as a freshman and to stay for five years. She looks forward to attending band alumni days.
But today, in front of 90,000 people, she runs into Memorial Stadium for one last time as a featured twirler for the Cornhusker Marching Band — and one more adrenaline rush.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|