The face was familiar.
Monica Endsley was sure she’d seen him somewhere before.
This just wasn’t a good time to stop and say, “Hi.”
The University of Tennessee freshman cheerleader was racing through the “T” for the first time prior to the season opener with Western Kentucky earlier this fall, and a fired up Tennessee football team was right on Endsley’s heels.
“It was awesome!” she said. “It was fast, I guess because of the football team. It took my breath away.”
Endsley was sure she recognized the Pride of the Southland Band’s drum major as she stormed by him through the “T” into Neyland Stadium. When she reached the sideline, she finally put a name with the face. On the biggest stage on a football Saturday afternoon in East Tennessee, two William Blount High School graduates were right there, front and center.
“I told everyone the drum major went to school with me,” Endsley said.
Ben Farr assumed his post as the Tennessee band’s drum major as a junior a year ago while Endsley was completing her senior year at William Blount. Team co-captain her senior year there, Endsley was named to the Tennessee squad this spring.
The rigors of the application process are something both say they’ll never forget. For Endsley, it validated some sage motherly advice as old as the hills that border Tennessee’s historic stadium.
A cheerleader since grade school, with an even longer background in gymnastics, Endsley said she’d long envisioned cheering for the Vols. In many ways, it’s every bit as prestigious as making the football team.
Many University of Tennessee cheerleaders, much in keeping with their football counterparts, are Division I scholarship athletes.
Endsley said she went back and forth over the decision to submit an application for the tryouts. She wondered many times if she was good enough, she said. It would be so much easier to simply go somewhere else for college and hang up her cheerleading sneakers for good.
Finally, she’d had enough. With the tryouts less than a week away in late May, she decided not to apply.
“There was a little bit of fear there,” William Blount cheerleading coach Ramona Jordan said. “Her mom told her, ‘If you don’t try it, you’ll never know.’”
Yvonne Endsley, Monica’s mother, didn’t limit it to just some good advice.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to go ahead and send in the application, just in case you change your mind,’” Yvonne Endsley said.
Endsley finally consented the day of the tryouts, at 3 p.m. that afternoon, to be precise. More than 80 hopefuls, both male and female, had descended on Tennessee’s Knoxville campus by that point. The selection process would last three long days, with the number invited back each day growing smaller all the time.
“They made three cuts a day,” Endsley said. “After we had lunch, they posted the cuts on the door.”
When she didn’t score well on one of her stunts on the second day, Endsley said she felt she’d missed her chance.
“It was the first time I had ever stunted with a guy,” she said, “and it went really bad.”
Endsley said she questioned whether to continue. She’d already endured two rounds and her nerves weren’t good. Once again, Yvonne Endsley knew just the thing to stiffen her daughter’s resolve.
“She said, ‘You have to go back,’” Monica said.
Much to her relief, Endsley was invited back for that third and final day. After one last round of cuts, Tennessee Spirit Squad coach Joy Postell-Gee picked the 32-member squad.
“’You are our 2009, 2010 University of Tennessee cheerleaders’” were Postell-Gee’s words after the room was cleared, Endsley said.
“My heart just dropped,” said Endsley. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The work was just beginning, though.
Tennessee cheerleaders are, by any scale, some of the fittest athletes at the school. Practice can stretch to three hours each day. There’s weight training, even for 85-pound Mandy Pitto, the team’s smallest member.
“She is tiny!” Endsley said.
Along with the stunt work and conditioning in the weight room, there’s running, running and more running.
During a lull in practice, it’s not uncommon for Postell-Gee to tell the squad to “go run,” Endsley said, “and we’ll bust out two or three miles. If we don’t have anything to do, we’re running.”
It would be difficult for William Blount to select a better student to represent it, cheerleading or otherwise, Jordan said.
“She was awesome to work with at William Blount,” she said. “She was always positive and had a great attitude. She’s a great kid, too.”
The same, Jordan said, can be said for Farr.
“To have two kids from William Blount in that position, not everybody gets to do that,” she said. “I’m very blessed to have worked with both those kids.”
Excepting the football team’s quarterback and head coach, there are few inside Neyland Stadium on a home football Saturday with more responsibility than Farr. Putting a 300-piece marching band through its paces is a daunting task.
There’s a new show to perfect every week. The seven hours of practice time for the band each week, with a three-hour rehearsal on game day, can put a strain a student pursuing any course of study, and Farr picked a real creampuff for a major: nuclear engineering.
“Doing all that stuff and trying to keep your grades up in nuclear engineering … it’s not like basket weaving,” Jim Farr, Ben’s father, said. “He’s got a lot on him.”
After a selection process held the same day as the football team’s Orange and White spring game, Farr was largely ready for anything.
A trumpet player by trade, Farr began the day with a one-on-one interview with Tennessee band director Gary Sousa. Each applicant for drum major then directs the band for a quarter during the game. Finally, in perhaps the most important test of all, each applicant performs the drum major’s famed head-back strut in front of the band.
“You can’t be nervous in front of 300 when you’ve got to do it in front of 100,000,” Farr said.
Farr said he worked on the move for some time in preparation for the tryouts. He first made the decision to apply for drum major as a Tennessee sophomore. Once he did, he enlisted the help of former Pride of the Southland Band drum major Fuller Lyon to help in perfecting his technique.
“You watch it, and you just try it out,” Farr said. “Flexibility is probably the key in doing the strut, but you just have to practice.”
Jim Farr said he still gets a kick out of seeing the band part the “T” for his son to come strutting through.
“Every time,” he said. “Every time we hear the band coming down the hill playing ‘Rocky Top,’ it gives you chills.”
Farr credits former William Blount band director Rob Clark with much of his success as a drum major, a position he also held with the Governor marching band.
“Rob Clark helped me a lot in planning for the future,” he said. “The responsibility he gave me really prepared me.”
Kind words, Clark said, but much of what Farr has accomplished is of his own doing.
“Ben was just a natural to be the drum major at William Blount,” he said. “In fact, we had him back at William Blount for a football game the last couple of weeks, and he led the band in the national anthem.
“He’s just a natural leader. He always insisted on being the best at whatever he was doing. You gave him a problem, he took it to heart, went home and worked on it and got better. Whatever he works at, he works at being the best.”
While taxing, the demands associated with marching the Pride of the Southland Band into Neyland Stadium for a game has done much to ready him for life, Farr said.
“The level of discipline is extremely high,” he said. “I think that’s unique for every band member because what you’re doing is a real time-consuming endeavor. I think everyone in college should be a part of something.
“You’ve got to be dedicated (to being in the band), and that’s a skill you use when you graduate: How are you going to manage your time?”
As his career at Tennessee winds down, Farr said he’s already starting to miss it.
“I try to take in how great it is every game,” he said.
It’s just too bad, Jim Farr said, the most celebrated tradition for seniors associated with Tennessee football isn’t an option for those in the band.
“They are the ‘T’ but they don’t get to run through it,” he said.
Yeah, but you won’t find many Tennessee football players who can lay their head back strut like Ben can.
“I can’t speak highly enough about Ben,” Clark said. “What a great kid.”