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Football plays to the beat
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The Sierra High band has been there to provide music for the Timberwolves successful journey to snag a share of the Valley Oak League football championship. - photo by HIME ROMERO

He calls out the play, standing tall in his stance, signaling each member of his team with smooth arm strokes.

There’s no debating who the maestro of this offensive is. 

Rick Hammarstrom has been quarterbacking the Sierra High band for nearly two decades, and his music has accompanied the football program’s rise from the city’s youngest school to its current Valley Oak League champion.

“There’s no place else to be. We have fun ourselves. We love to play, so we play as much as we can,” said Hammarstrom, surrounded by his grandchildren during Friday’s first-round victory over Rosemont, one of whom pounds on a drum. 

“We have a great time out there and I think it adds a lot to the game.”

Through the decades, spanning its various levels, music has synced itself with sport, sharing its biggest stages and its most hallowed moments. 

What’s the Big Game (Cal vs. Stanford) without the band storming the field prematurely in 1982? 

What’s the Super Bowl without a marquee name belting out the National Anthem and or turning halftime into a pyrotechnic and light show?

“If you’re at a football game without music,” Sierra High Band President Haleigh Kiesel said, “it’s like playing without a crowd.”

At football’s ground floor, where teenagers chase glory beneath those Friday night lights, music sets the mood in the privacy of a locker, heightens the drama in the stands, and serenades a champion following its triumph.

Manteca safety Dom Pisano has been his team’s emotional leader all season. His voice carries about the practice field, and when the Buffaloes charge the field before the start of games, they do so following a Shepherd Stick-wielding Pisano.

But who lights his fire? Who pumps up Manteca’s field general?

Rap artist Curtis James Jackson III, better known as 50 Cent.

The senior says he listens to 50 Cent radio on Pandora “all day on game day. … It just gets me in the game mode mood. His music just gets me ready.”

Hammarstrom might not have sheet music for 50 Cent, but he and his students have honored other musical icons. Earlier this year, Hammarstrom and a fellow instructors paid tribute to the Beatles during a halftime performance. 

He has been a music teacher since 1985 and has spent the last 16 years leading the Sierra High band. In that time, Hammarstrom says the band has missed only one home football game. 

That night, they were scared off by the threat of rain. It’ll take more than foreboding clouds to keep the band away from the football games this season.

Sierra has embarked on a historic quest. The Timberwolves are seeded second in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs and listed fifth in the CIF Division II bowl rankings. 

“Oh, we’re watching,” Hammarstrom said. “We watch a lot. If we need to keep a drive going or they need a key play, we’ll keep playing ‘Charge.’”

The 91-member band plays their way through the parking lot and home gate, announcing their arrival. They sit in seats at the 50-yard line – front and center – strategically located beneath the press box, next to the student section and in front of the cheerleaders. 

Together, that triumvirate creates enough sound to shake the neighborhood.

“We’ve got so many cheers that go with music – ‘Hey, baby’ and our fight song and ‘Charge.’ We get the crowd interacting with us,” Kiesel said before the start of Friday’s 69-37 victory over Rosemont. 

“It makes us feel like we’re a part of all of this that goes on on a Friday night.”

Hammarstrom planned it that way. He didn’t want the band cast off to a dark corner of the stadium, where its sound might be muted by its distance from the play on the field. 

“When I first came here, I told them we need to sit next to the student cheer section and right in front of the cheerleaders,” Hammarstrom said. “I know it makes it a challenge for the guys in the (press box), but I like being right in the mix.

“Some schools sit (the band) in the end zone or at the 20-yard line. I like being in the game.”

Their music hasn’t fallen on deaf ears, either.

Administrative members have gone out of their way to thank the band for their presence. “Principal Steve Clark has told the kids how much he felt we added to the games,” Hammarstrom said. “He’s thanked us for always being there.”

Kiesel says that show of gratitude extends to the football program.

She’ll never forget the night Sierra topped Oakdale, 31-20, because something unexpected happened in the wake of that victory.

As the band streamed toward its room, the football team met them outside the locker rooms, applauding their musical MVPs as they went.

“It was the coolest thing,” Kiesel said. “It was the first time that’s happened in my four years.”

Sometimes, the line between football and music are blurred. Sometimes, the band member and football player are one in the same.

Take Jeremy De la Cerda for instance. The Weston Ranch junior celebrated his last game of the season by satisfying both his loves. 

He slipped into pads and helmet for a home game against Sierra, and at halftime, stayed on the field to play his trombone for the crowd.

In that moment, football and music, sport and sound, were synced perfectly; a match made in harmony.