This report is part of WTOP’s coverage of Black History Month. Read more stories on WTOP.com.
Have you ever dreamed of being at the Super Bowl? Even better, how about playing on that Sunday? What seems like a ridiculous dream was a reality for 74-year old Freddie Colston of Forest Hills, Maryland.
As a freshman cymbals player attending Grambling College in Louisiana, Colston played during what was called the first “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” (Super Bowl wasn’t officially the term for the game until 1969, or Super Bowl III).
“We went home for Christmas, and the band director said ‘when you go home, don’t unpack your luggage, because we’ve got something in the works’,” Colston said. “I was home for two days, had to go back on campus. He said, ‘we’re going to play a halftime show for the Super Bowl.'”
Playing in front of a crowd of 61,946 may be a little daunting for some. And getting a chance to see the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs might be a little distracting as well. But that’s not what sticks with the impressionable then-19-year-old all these years later.
“For us, it was just a game. Just a halftime show performing,” Colston said. “”But the biggest thrill was being able to fly on a plane. My first time, flying on a plane.”
It was just one afternoon in Jan. 1967, but the Grambling College Marching Band was center stage during a decade marked by the Civil Rights Movement. Colston was just a freshman cymbals player.
“It did not come full-circle to us until many, many years later,” the 74-year-old said. “The gravity of us: a Black band from Louisiana during the integration-segregation time, flying on a plane, staying in a five-star hotel, eating very, very good food, and performing in front of millions in America.”
At a time, most major colleges in the south didn’t field integrated teams (the 1969 Texas National Championship team was the last all-white squad to win it all), so seeing the pro game was encouraging for the HBCU student at the time, as both teams had former Tigers on their roster.
“We had the Green Bay Packers; Willie Davis was on the team from Grambling,” Colston said. “And Buck Buchanan was on the Kansas City Chiefs at that time as well.”
The Fairbanks, Louisiana, native hung up his cymbals upon graduation.
“I came up here to Washington, D.C. in 1971 and got a job working with the Cost of Living Council and Price Rates Commission, and then the Potomac Electric Power Company for 30 years,” Colston said.
In retirement, the former band member couldn’t stay away from the field and arena. He’s been an usher at Nationals Park for six years, and for the last five years has worked football games at FedEx Field as well as University of Maryland sporting events. If you bump into Freddie at Xfinity Center, he’ll shake your hand and return your smile.
Paul McCartney. Lady Gaga. Prince. The Rolling Stones. U2. The recent Super Bowl halftime shows are entertainment’s ultimate “Who’s who” (even The Who has performed). But the Grambling Marching Band has played in six halftime shows — more than any other performer. And that started Jan. 15, 1967 when they strode on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum field.
“So it (the Super Bowl) was something brand new. So I guess the NFL wanted to have the best band for halftime,” Colston said. “So they came knocking on the door at Grambling College and said, ‘we want the best band in the land to perform at halftime.'”
And if you’ve never seen an HBCU marching band perform, it’s tough to explain the experience.
“Some bands have individuals play instruments. Grambling had musicians who perform. We were one of the first bands who perform,” Colston said. “And we were one of the first few bands who danced and played and instrument at the same time at a high tempo.”
And while they technically performed on the field during halftime, the show wasn’t limited to just that.
“So, we come on the field performing. Get off the field performing. We go to our buses performing,” Colston said. “So we want to let you know you’ve been entertained and if you missed the halftime show, we can show you what you missed by us leaving the stadium.”
Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar take center stage at Sofi Stadium on Sunday. And while they’ll give a star-studded show, this year’s crop still has the original standard to live up to.
“We just want to remind everyone that the Grambling College Tiger Marching Band was the first to set the standard that everyone had to follow behind them,” Colston said.