When Dr. Matthew McCutchen, director of the University of South Florida Herd of Thunder Marching Band, received the news that his band would perform in the 2017 Rome New Year's Day Parade, he knew there was one thing he wanted it to do above all else.
Over the summer, he and assistant director of bands Bryan Braue traveled to Italy to scope out a plan for the band's second appearance in an international parade (the first was London in 2013).
McCutchen asked a parade organizer if it might be possible for them to perform in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican City plaza just outside the papal enclave. She said probably not; after all, nobody else had.
McCutchen pulled out his iPad and showed her a video of another college band that had done precisely that, and a few months later, the Herd's performance was confirmed for Dec. 31.
Shortly before their Roman debut, a change was passed down: Could they perform on New Year's Day instead?
That's when McCutchen realized that a good chunk of his 370-piece band might be performing for the Pope himself.
Pope Francis would give his annual mass at 10 a.m. and then follow with his address. That was right around the time that the last of 21 tubas made it through the metal detectors. At 11:30 a.m., they turned and played to the window where the Pope sat preparing his address.
"How many bands can say they've played for the Pope?" said McCutchen, still smiling from the memory. "It was once-in-a-lifetime."
McCutchen worries every year that a parade invitation might conflict with the band's first responsibility: to support the football team at a bowl game.
"If athletics said no, then we weren't going," he said. "But they've been very supportive; they know it's good for the school, so they said if we had at least 100 students available for the bowl game, it was a go."
The invitation to perform in the parade came almost two years ago; the students were told a year in advance, giving them time to come up with the $3,700 price of admission. 130 musicians came up with the cash, which included fundraising efforts by the school.
Just a few days before their performance for Pope Francis, the band visited Frescati, a small mountainous town with an authenticity not found in the bustle of Rome, to march in a small street parade. They squeezed into alleyways, shoulder to shoulder, their booming sound echoing off stone walls more than 2,000 years old.
"We played everything we could think of," McCutchen said. "They didn't really care what we looked or sounded like; they just came out of their houses and followed us through town, enjoying the ambiance."
The parade itself, roughly two miles long, had no barricades keeping out the public, and many of them marched along with the band in the 50-degree weather. Several students said they couldn't feel their lips by the end, and were exhausted from a demanding schedule, but the energy of the crowd kept them going.
"It didn't sink in until after we got home what we really did," said Mari-Beth Neil, 24, a fourth-year member. "We got to represent our university on a worldwide stage; I'm still processing the magnitude of it."
Second-year tuba player Elani Merrick, 19, saved up for months to go on the trip.
"Right after the parade, the whole band put our arms around each other and sang the alma mater," she recalled. "It felt so surreal to be surrounded by my friends in a beautiful city, doing amazing things."
The culture was certainly a learning experience for many of the students; the famous "horns up" hand gesture used by Bulls fans everywhere, an offensive signal in Italy, was something the band had to learn how to stop while there.
Through tireless performances, long rehearsals and sightseeing trips to the Colosseum, Caesar's Palace and Pompeii, the Herd of Thunder members most cherish the moments when they could kick back and enjoy their audience.
As the drumline prepared for their Frescati performance, two Italian toddlers wandered up and, without prompting, began to play on their drums. They had never seen anything like a college marching band before; the delighted students played along.
"Watching our students be so wonderful with people they didn't know; that was the highlight," McCutchen said. "There are so many bad stories in the news right now, but if you look at band kids and see the amount of time, talent, blood and energy that they have, those are good stories."
Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin