The 370 members of the University of South Florida's Herd of Thunder Marching Band are used to the spotlight, performing in front of thousands at every USF football home game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
On Jan. 1, it's a whole new ball game.
Actually, it's not a game at all. But it is perhaps the most important performance in the group's 17-year history.
The band will showcase their talent in the Rome New Year's Parade in Italy, a celebration that culminates with performances from each participating band and a blessing from the Pope himself in St. Peter's Square. Over 100,000 people are expected to attend, and millions more will tune in from around the world via YouTube or other live stream options.
"This is an incredibly exciting international experience for our students," said Dr. Matthew McCutchen, USF's Associate Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands. "For them to have an opportunity to see a different country and experience that culture for a week, it's tremendous."
The Herd will perform in a Catholic cathedral and at a street fair in the small city of Frescati, with plenty of time leftover to see the sights. They will tour the Vatican and even visit Pompeii.
Although performing for Pope Francis is not set in stone, McCutchen thinks it might be in the stars.
The Herd's Vatican show was originally slated for the day before the Pope's annual New Year's address, but because there wasn't enough security available, they were moved up.
"We've got a shot, at least!" said McCutchen during a phone interview as he waited with his charges for their flight on Wednesday.
Only 130 members of the band will travel to Rome; the cost for each student was approximately $3,700. It will take three airplanes to get the students, staff, instruments and uniforms across the pond.
The young musicians were informed of the trip more than a year ago, and the excitement has reached a fever pitch.
"I've never traveled overseas before," said Elizabeth Rutherford, 21, who finished up her years with the band this season. "I've always wanted to visit Italy, and to do it with the people and organization I hold so close to me just adds so much more meaning and excitement to the trip."
This will be the second time the Herd has performed in a New Year's Day Parade; in 2013, they traveled to London and performed for half a million spectators. The parade organizers have invited them to return ever since, but this is the first year McCutchen felt prepared to repeat such a monumental undertaking.
"We're really excited to help spread the name of USF internationally as well," he said. "Anything we can do to let more people know about our amazing university, we're happy to do."
The students, who juggle school and jobs with 9-12 hours of practice every week in the fall and often report for 7 p.m. kickoff days well before noon, are eager to showcase their hours of extra rehearsals on an international stage.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a musician and a USF representative," said Matthew Harvey, 19, a second-year member. "They really do mean it when they say all roads lead to Rome."
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected],com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin