Drivers slow and stare as they pass the 123-member Mighty Marching Lions weaving through a church parking lot along Armenia Avenue. Some quiet radios and bounce to the beat. It has been three years since the youth band formed at Revealing Truth Ministries, starting with seven teens, one instrument and a vision: One day, they would march in the Children's Gasparilla Parade. A church member had donated the lone saxophone and Antwaun Underwood took the role of band director. His first task was to buy drumsticks. A couple of the teens had musical experience. With others, he would start from scratch. Pastor Greg Powe was eager to reach teens through his 20-year-old church, which is located next to a skating rink on Armenia Avenue, south of Hillsborough Avenue.
Yes, it is unusual for a church to have a marching band, the two men agree.
Underwood remembers laughing when people told them: Hold on, you don't have any instruments.
And they knew their work would be a challenge. Along with the typical trials of teen years, many of the kids come from low-income homes without male role models. They talk out. They break rules.
Underwood, 29, demands discipline. The band must operate as one body. Don't be late, he tells members. They arrive each Saturday at 8 a.m. for practice. Punctuality will help later in life. Many don't want to leave when it's over at 1 p.m.
He sometimes settles rivalries, such as those between students from Middleton and Blake high schools.
Seventeen-year-old Charles Watts joined two years ago. As a drum major, he sets a beat for his peers. He tells them to calm down and be serious. It can be a lot of responsibility, he said.
But the rewards are significant.
The band performed in Miami last year at the Snoop Bowl and got to dance with Snoop Dogg. They also did a pregame show for the Tampa Bay Storm.
Watch Watts on a Saturday, body swaying to an infectious beat.
"Let's go. Let's go. Let's go," he chants.
Watts hopes to parlay drumming skills and good grades at Middleton into a band scholarship at Florida A&M University next year. One day, he'd like to direct a band, like Underwood.
Underwood can play any band instrument. He helped direct bands at two high schools in Alabama before coming to Tampa. He knows some programs have little money for instruments or uniforms, and yet these things are essential.
The Mighty Marching Lions count on donations. Church members provide most of the instruments. A clarinet resting in an attic found a new calling. Church members paid $38,000 for uniforms from the same company that outfits the Florida A&M University marching band. They run $375 apiece.
"When a kid puts a band uniform on, it changes their whole demeanor," Underwood said. "It totally takes them out of their realm of thinking."
These days, kids as young as 7 come from Tampa, Riverview, Wesley Chapel, Brandon, Sarasota and Land O'Lakes to be a part of the Mighty Marching Lions. Only one-third of them are church members.
Powe, 55, had aimed church resources at teens for years but was aware some were falling through the cracks. He saw the appeal of gangs, being a part of a group, and he saw the appeal of musicians. With dancers and a flag squad, there would be a place for many talents.
He hopes to grow the band to 150 members.
"Our band is one of the most exclusive 'gangs' in the community," Powe said.
And after three short years, they are about to reach a goal. They expect to march in the 78th position in Saturday's Children's Gasparilla Parade.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.