COLUMBUS – Stew Kitchen isn’t just a farm kid.
He’s an athlete, too, an Ohio State University athlete, a true Buckeye who’s bled scarlet and gray since he was a toddler.
And now, as collegiate teams take to the gridiron Saturday afternoons, he’s right in the center of it all. His fancy moves propel him from goal post to goal post, throws and catches and kicks in between.
But he’s not the quarterback or a receiver or even the team punter. There’s a bit more pomp and flare in his position.
This farm kid is the drum major.
* * *
Stew’s grandfather went to medical school at Ohio State. His mother and two uncles got degrees in Columbus, too, so it wasn’t too surprising that Stew felt destined to follow family tradition.
He got an early start toward becoming an OSU football fanatic. He guesses his first visit to The Horseshoe came when he was only 3 or 4 years old.
On game days, he’d sing along with the rest of the fans:
O, we don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan
The whole state of Michigan, the whole state of Michigan
We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, we’re from O-hi-o …
He knew that song and the OH-IO chant and recognized Hang on Sloopy before he could string together the alphabet. He was into the Ohio State zone, a true fan through and through.
As much as he loved the excitement of kickoff and watching the men of scarlet and gray drive the field and hold the line, he looked forward to the halftime show just as much.
The drum major would lead The Best Damn Band in the Land down the ramp into the stadium in front of more than 100,000 roaring fans. His trademark backbend really got Stew’s heart thumping.
Fast forward to 2002, when Stew followed his treasured Buckeyes to their national championship at the Fiesta Bowl.
At the stadium in Tempe, Ariz., Stew and his family crowded the Buckeye Bash, a party and pep rally for Ohio State fans. And there, with the band’s brass as the backdrop, he watched with awe as the drum major performed just yards away from him. It was the first time he’d ever seen the drum major up close and personal.
The mix of awesome athleticism and showmanship was just what Stew was looking for in life. Watching that drum major’s moves was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen, he says.
That sealed his fate. He silently vowed someday, somehow, he’d be in that spot.
* * *
Back at Kenton High School in Hardin County, Ohio, Stew went straight to the band director with a special request.
Stew, who played the sousaphone in the band, told the director that even though the school hadn’t had one in nearly 25 years, he wanted to bring back the drum major position.
And he volunteered to lead the program. To his surprise, the director agreed.
Now Stew, a star wrestler and soccer player who’d never twirled a baton a day in his life, had to find and refine the complicated skills to back up his plan.
* * *
It’s funny how things have come full circle for Stew. Bits and pieces of his life collected along the way put him in a prime position to take on the high school drum major’s position.
Through his wrestling and soccer training, he’d picked up skills that made him a near-perfect candidate for the drum major position.
His soccer games gave him the stamina to run back and forth across the field, kicking and moving without missing a step. His high school wrestling coach had been an OSU cheerleader, and every wrestling squad member learned to do cartwheels and tumbling passes and push their limits when it came to agility.
Other than the twirling ability, Stew had already laid a strong foundation.
* * *
Growing up, Stew had always known there was an old-school drum major’s baton in his grandma’s coat closet. It had belonged to her cousin, but tucked away in the dark, it went unnoticed and unused.
The summer of his junior year, Stew sneaked the baton from the house to the barnyard and chucked it into the air hundreds and hundreds of times. He never told his family what he was up to until he was confident in his twirling, throwing and catching skills.
And when he finally revealed what he’d been doing, his family was in shock, he says. But being hardcore OSU fans, they understood his goal.
That winter, on his 17th birthday, they drove Stew to Columbus for a special lesson from Ohio State’s drum major.
* * *
Any drum major wannabe has to be in the marching band’s D-Row at least one year.
D-Row members wear the regular band uniform, practicing on weekdays and game days to learn the ins and outs of band membership, procedure, whistle commands and Script Ohio. They hold instruments and march and go over and over the drills again and again until they could walk them in their sleep.
But then they stand on the sidelines on game days, hungrily watching their friends come down the stadium ramp and perform for the crowd. It’s about paying dues.
Each step and practice and lesson is taken with one ultimate goal: Making the tryout cut.
In the spring of 2006, only three tried out to lead the band. One was last year’s drum major, the other his assistant. And then there was Stew.
Other hopefuls who try out for drum major at Ohio State come with years of high school experience under their belt, with years of twirling lessons and binders and notebooks listing tricks and choreographed routines they’ve perfected.
Stew admits he was a little disadvantaged. He’d done his best back in Kenton, but had only two years – less than two dozen real game-day performances and a single memorized high-school routine – to his credit.
But he went out and wowed the judges with his ramp entrance and backbend, choreographed twirling routine and impressive aerial tosses.
And, just for fun and a shot of his own personality, Stew threw in some acrobatics: catches under his leg, cartwheels between the baton’s release and catch.
He was more gymnastic than what any drum major before him had been.
Half of his hometown and his fraternity brothers came to watch. They loved it and the judges loved it.
Fans rushed the tryout field and celebrated by carrying him off on their shoulders. Suddenly, the rookie kid from D-Row had moved from the No. 3 to the No. 1 spot.
* * *
From the 1920s, when Tubby Essington was named Ohio State’s first drum major, to the 1940s, there was no backbend to kick off the band’s show. Instead, the drum major would lead the band across the field and toss the baton high up and over the goalpost.
If he caught the baton, it meant the team would win that game. If he dropped it, the game’s outcome was iffy.
That’s still the drum major’s battlecry: No matter what, always catch the baton.
* * *
Outside of the marching band, Stew is a normal Ohio State sophomore, and a normal farm kid.
He spends his days in the classroom, studying animal science and agricultural education, and his evenings at Buckeye Dairy Club meetings, at the Alpha Tau Zeta fraternity house, with friends sneaking their fishing poles to pull goldfish from Mirror Lake.
He’s into hunting and horses and dairy cows – he grew up raising Jerseys and Quarter Horses – and was active in 4-H and is a state-degreed FFA alum.
His parents want him home around the farm more, but he’s loving living the college life.
“I’ve got lots of years to be a farmer, and they know that. They realize I only have a few short years to be this,” Stew says.
It’s a powerful concept for him to grasp.
“Ohio State is a family tradition. And only 54 people have done this drum major thing here before me,” he says, noting at 19 he’s the youngest Buckeye drum major ever.
“It’s an awesome honor. And I’m lucky I’ll have 225 of my best friends there to support me every time I do it.”
* * *
Stew has committed time and energy to TBDBITL, and his reward is a full-tuition scholarship that will get him through this year, and maybe next. He’s got to try out each year, and is limited to two years unless he’s asked to come back for a third season.
No drum major has been asked to make it a three-peat since 1978, before Stew was even born, but he’s still hopeful.
“I really hope it’s an option I’ll get.”
Other students don’t yet recognize him around campus, and don’t necessarily know he’s a farmer. Stew isn’t complaining that he can still blend in with the crowd. But he’s made that anonymity harder on himself. Watch for him zipping around campus in his Ford Taurus.
The license plate? DRUMAJR.
* * *
The backbend, the drum major’s signature mark of balance and strength and confidence to touch just the tip of his hat’s red plume on the field without toppling backward, sends Ohio State fans into a tizzy.
And it gives Stew the extra burst of confidence he needs to perform.
“It’s the moment of glory for the whole band,” Stew explains.
“When I touch that plume to the ground, I can see the whole first row of the band give me the nod. There’s no more excitement than that.”
But even with the excitement that courses through Stew’s veins as the football season kicks off, there’s still plenty of humility in his mind.
“Without the drum major, there would still be a band. But without the band, there would be no drum major,” he acknowledges.
“Every move I make depends on them.”
* * *
Stew is pumped for football season. He’s got his marching charts memorized, knows where he’ll be during Script Ohio – inside the ‘h’ – and is ready to flirt with the crowds.
He practices for hours every day on the grassy lawn near Morrill and Lincoln towers, drawing throngs of bystanders. He feeds on their attention and plays to their awe. It’s a scaled-down version of game day.
But he’s nervous, too, about Saturdays: the possibility he’ll fall during his backbend, about being in front of 100,000 people in the ‘Shoe, throwing that baton a hundred feet into the air and praying he can catch it.
It’s his time to shine, to perform, to honor the traditions of past drum majors and show the crowd what this farm boy has up his sleeve.
There’s one thing he’s concentrating on most: No matter what, keep up the Buckeye tradition. Don’t drop the baton.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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