Thanksgiving evening was like any other travel day for the University of Washington marching band in 2018. Six busses weaved through the Cascade Mountains on the way to Washington State University and the Apple Cup. On Interstate 90, just outside of George, Washington, a bus hit a patch of ice and flipped on its side.
Thirty-nine band members were injured and taken to four regional hospitals. Other band members were spread around three hotels. They wouldn't make it to the big game.
WSU band director Troy Bennefield watched as his screen lit up on his phone and he began to read stories and texts about the accident involving the UW band bus. He reached out to his Washington counterpart, Brad McDavid, and asked what he could do to help.
He wasn’t going to let the moment be bigger than him and his band. He only knew that Washington’s band was on its way to the Apple Cup but they would not arrive.
The stakes were high in the 2018 Apple Cup. The game pitted eighth-ranked Washington State against No. 16 Washington. The winner would win the Pac-12 North title and go to the conference championship game a week later. The Cougars, on the other hand, had an outside shot at a College Football Playoff game. The Huskies had their sights set on returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a generation.
The winner would also hold bragging rights for the next 365 days. But none of that mattered. The bands weren’t so much rivals as they were colleagues who spoke the same language: music. It was not just a common language but also therapy for the giver and recipient.
The same can be said for kindness.
While the atmosphere was always contentious at tailgate parties, on the field, and in the stands there’s always been a brotherhood and sisterhood among bands. The WSU band responded by playing as a stand-in.
With the game a sellout and more demand for tickets than there were seats, officials chose not to fill the seats set aside for the Washington band members to honor them.
The WSU band next played the Washington fight song “Bow Down to Washington."
Bennefield had heard the song plenty, not always under ideal circumstances. “It’s not a good sign to hear the opponent’s fight song played a lot during the game,” he said. “It means that your team isn’t doing well.”
But that was the greater point to all of this, that football is just a game. Bennefield and his band chose to take the high road. “Everybody knew that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “There was no hesitation at all.”
No hesitation to play the other school’s fight song on a day where the football teams, fans, and families were often at odds. A day that it’s OK to dislike each other for a few hours. It took a band of brothers and sisters to show harmony.
Bennefield asked McDavid for sheet music to be emailed to him and he printed it and distributed to the groups with the midnight hour close at hand.
WSU percussionist Nick Theriault said the normal game-day routine goes as follows: band rehearsal starts six hours before kickoff and the drumline meets up to two hours before that. Given the situation at hand, he and his bandmates took ownership of playing the Husky fight song and started practicing their own parts.
Theriault had traveled with many Washington band members and counted them as friends rather than rivals. “We were going to play for them from our hearts,” he said.
He wanted to honor his friends by being ready when the band played together at rehearsal. In fact, Theriault said the percussionists weren’t the only ones who came early. “Every band member took ownership of their own part,” he said. “We had to nail it."
The WSU band members accepted the challenge of learning a new musical piece on short order because they understood what it would have meant to them had the positions been reversed.
In the pre-game performance, as bitterly cold precipitation came down hard, the Cougars marching band turned toward the UW band’s section and the opposing fans to play the Husky fight song. Amid a down-pour, as Martin Stadium public-address announcer Glenn Johnson words "in the spirit of sportsmanship" rained down on capacity crowd, WSU’s band members had the UW’s fight song down.
They turned and faced the empty seats set aside for the Husky band and belted out “Bow Down to Washington.”
"At that moment we were representing the University of Washington," Theriault said, "and we wanted to do it in a good light.”
That light lit up the faces of the Washington band members and their families.
Even though they had no intention of their gesture going viral, the story was picked up by national and international news organizations. It was told across Europe and in Australia and New Zealand.
Their intention was to play a tribute to their friends. The recognition that came with it made the WSU community proud.
University of Washington band member Shanna Hauser had been involved with concert bands since the sixth grade and in marching bands since the ninth grade. It was hard not to be in Pullman for the game, but she was grateful for the demonstration of sportsmanship and goodwill.
“Marching bands are a community,” she said. “We got thoughts and wishes from other marching bands across the country.”
The actions of the Washington State marching band meant the most. Hauser and her bandmates will have an opportunity to say thanks these Cougars on Friday afternoon at Husky Stadium.