The Man at the Turn

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“This is the first year that I march to that spot. I didn’t really know what to expect.”

This guy—the guy at the end of the line, right in the middle of the picture—is in an interesting spot. We wanted to find out who this guy is.

Turns out it’s Sam Cove. Sam is a senior accounting major who plays tenor saxophone in the Blue Band. (He also serves as band secretary this year). Sam caught our eye because of where he stands during the band’s pregame lineup: right at the end of the line, the first point at which the Nittany Lion players and coaches, having just charged out of the tunnel behind the south end zone, can turn toward their sideline.

As you can see, Sam’s position leaves him a little bit exposed.

This is Sam’s first year at the end of the line, and before the home opener against Eastern Michigan a few weeks ago, he admits, “I didn’t really know what to expect.”

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“The players are really serious when they come out. Really focused, really intense.”

What he found was that the players get … pretty close. Really close, in fact. Sam really had no idea how close they were going to get. “In years past,” he says of his perch farther up the line, “they just kind of went running by.”

It’s worth mentioning that Sam goes about 5-9, 150.

“Now,” he says, “it feels like they’re on top of me. There was a moment when one of the players got pretty close, and I almost felt like I’d have to take a step back. It seems like they get closer and closer every week.”

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“The players are almost on top of me. It feels like they get closer every week.”

It easy, for those of us who sit and watch the games, to take the Blue Band for granted. They’re always there, always great, always crisp in their classic uniforms and tight in their formations. A big, dependable unit. But of course, as much as it’s a single entity, the Blue Band is also a collection of individuals, some of whose jobs—the drum major being the obvious example—draw a little more attention, and imply a little more pressure, than others.

Sam’s job doesn’t really draw much attention. But his position, the physical space he is required to hold for a few long minutes before kickoff … well, you might not have noticed him. But standing still in the face of that flood of big, fast-moving humanity requires a little something extra. A little more focus. Maybe even a little bit of courage.

When the team comes out, the band is playing its parade medley, so they’re in the midst of either “Victory” or “Fight on State.” Sam has these tunes committed to memory, of course, so he can let his eyes wander a bit as he plays. “At that point, I’m definitely looking,” he says. “One, I’m looking out for myself. Two, I’m looking to see who’s coming by.”

We noticed, too. That’s why we called Sam. We had to ask about the one guy who comes closer than anyone else.

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“I had no idea he was going to get that close.”

“I can picture him vividly,” Sam says of Bill O’Brien.

His players take a relatively soft angle toward the sideline, but there is nothing soft about how Penn State’s head coach makes that turn. That is one hard right turn, a cut with purpose and intent, not unlike coaches teach their receivers to make on passing routes. “I definitely see him,” Sam says. “I had no idea he was going to get that close.”

Sam admits that it’s a pretty intense moment. And a pretty cool one, too.

“The first game or two, it was like, ‘Wow.’ But now I just kind of focus on my playing. Although part of me wants to stick my hand out and give him a high five.”

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“We’ve got to make sure we’re focused the entire game.”

Focus is vital, and the Blue Band has its own pre-game routine as it preps for another Saturday in Beaver Stadium. In that, they follow the lead of their “coach,” long-time Blue Band director O. Richard Bundy. “We have our morning rehearsal on game days, and after that we huddle around Dr. Bundy, and he gives us a talk that kind of rallies us before we leave the band building,” Sam says. “A lot of times, it’s about making sure we’re on our game, and that we’re behind the team no matter what.”

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“I really like the tradition.”

As for the other guy who leads 100 or so blue-and-white clad people onto the field each week: Sam says he’d love to ask O’Brien what he tells his players before they come out of the tunnel. “They all come out with the same expression,” Sam says. He’d also thank the coach for bringing the team over to the student section for the post-game playing of the Alma Mater. “I enjoy that a lot,” he says. “It’s nice having them over, win or lose. I really like the tradition.”

Sam will be back on campus next fall to finish his master’s degree through the MAcc Program in the Smeal College of Business, but this is his last year with the Blue Band. “The band’s really competitive,” he says. “For me to take a fifth year, I’d feel like I’m taking a chance from a freshman to come in and have the same experience I’ve had.” He’s content to savor this final season—knowing that, in at least one way, he’s closer to the game than anyone else.

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