The 17-year-old junior missed band camp this summer in favor of rounds of chemotherapy, but managed to join the band earlier this month as it competed to win seventh place overall, and first in its class size, at the Grand National band competition in Indianapolis.
A normal kid
Besides having leukemia, Rose is a pretty normal high schooler, said his mother, Denise Rose.
He enjoys playing video games, watching television and marching with his baritone, which looks like a tiny tuba, in the school band. When he was diagnosed in late June, Denise Rose said they were unsure if Austin would be able to participate in the band this year, which was a huge disappointment for the normally upbeat boy.
“We didn’t think anything band-wise would be within reach, because I didn’t know what the journey was going to look like,” said Denise Rose.
Through prayers and a massive amount of support from the band members, Austin was able to make it to nationals this year, she said, although it wasn’t an easy journey.
Harrison’s band has 195 members, which includes the musicians and the color guard. The group plays at the high school football games and competes with other bands in the region for awards, said Susan Parker, president of the band’s booster club.
This year’s group began practicing in May, and since then have met three afternoons each week from 4 to 7 p.m. and on most Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to practice their performance routines, Parker said.
This year’s nine-minute performance was themed “Scarlett,” a tribute to Atlanta-native Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” and the band played songs from the movie and the Indiana.
guard dressed in red, Parker said.
Such frequent practices are needed for a nationally recognized band, she said, and this year the band won first place in its class, AAA. Classes are determined by the size of the school, and Harrison won top honors for a school of its size, winning outstanding music performance, outstanding visual performance and outstanding general effect, Parker said.
Harrison has competed as the only school from Georgia at the national competition.
In two days of marching, on Nov. 15 and 16, the 92 bands from throughout the country were narrowed down to the top 12 bands, of which Harrison was awarded seventh.
“It’s an amazing process to watch. When they first start, they can barely play a scale together,” Parker said.
She has watched the band’s journey from the football field in Kennesaw to the national competition, where they marched in perfect formation and spelled out the word “Scarlett” with white umbrellas across the field.
An army of support
The band is a community unto itself, Parker said, and the students in it spend hours together practicing, traveling and performing. Many have been playing music with each other since they were in middle school, she said. Her son, Mitchell Parker, a junior at Harrison, has been marching with the baritone saxophone for three years now, she said, and she considers the band community a second family.
When Austin Rose was diagnosed with leukemia, his family gave out bright orange bracelets that read “Nobody fights alone” to the members of the band.
Members of the color guard, drum majors and musicians alike wore the bands throughout the season, regardless of whether or not Austin was at practice.
His recovery was dependent upon his participation in the band, his mother said, and if it wasn’t for the support he received, she isn’t sure he would have handled the chemotherapy treatments as well as he did.
“It feels fantastic to have people that are here for me. I have this whole army behind me on the battle against cancer,” he said.
Huge poster boards filled with signatures and best wishes from band members lined his hospital room, Rose said, and encouraged him to regain strength enough to attend band practice.
He showed up to a practice in October after a chemotherapy appointment and helped conduct the band from the sidelines for one of their songs.
His presence helped so much that the band director, Josh Ray, gave him a permanent spot in the performance as a sideline conductor, Rose said.
So close and yet so far
Austin was all ready to go with the band to Indiana on the eve of the national competition, when his doctors determined his white blood counts were dangerously low. They were worried he wouldn’t be able to fight off any infections he came across while at the competition.
Austin was crushed. He sat inside all day while the band traveled to Indiana, and barely said two words to anyone, his mother said.
“That was the most depressed I had ever seen him,” she said of her son.
Despite losing his hair on his chest, head and eyelashes, Austin had stayed positive until then, she said, and the family focused on praying for Austin’s blood counts to improve, and for a second chance at nationals.
The family pleaded with their doctors to check Austin’s blood once more on Friday morning, just in case.
As the band performed for the first time on Friday morning, Austin’s doctors analyzed his blood counts, and determined them stable enough for a trip.
It would be risky to put Austin’s body through the strenuous travel and performance, they said, but he was determined to get to Indiana.
“Mom, if I don’t go and nothing happens, I’ll regret it the rest of my life,” Austin told his mother.
The family quickly got in the car and drove to Indiana, Denise said.
When Austin showed up in Indiana, the rest of the band started cheering for him, he said.
As they stepped onto the field to perform for the second time on Saturday morning, Denise Rose said she started to cry.
She watched as her son, who was barely able to walk down the hospital hallway three months prior, stand on a ladder and swing his arms about in time with the music. As hundreds of eyes watched him, Austin led the group through the routine.
“This is all that we were praying for,” his mother said. “This is why we are part of the band.”
Marching band practices are over for the year, Parker said, but the students will continue to play in various ensembles for holiday concerts and events. But in just a few short months, the band members will be meeting again to start practicing for next year, she said.
Austin underwent another round of chemotherapy Tuesday and again today, he said.
After chemotherapy is over, Rose hopes he will be able to fully march in next year’s band.
Until then, he said he will use the holidays as a chance to rest and catch up on schoolwork he missed while in the hospital and at band events.
The Gymnastics Academy of Atlanta is playing host to a blood drive in Austin Rose’s honor on Thursday, Dec. 19, from 2 to 7 p.m. at 2995 Cobb Parkway NW, Kennesaw. For more information, call the gym at (770) 975-8337.