WYOMING, Mich. — The autumn sun shines on Walter Aguilar's back as he opens the door to Lee Middle and High Schools. As he walks the hallways and greets familiar faces like principal Andrew Steketee, it becomes apparent that Aguilar is a pretty recognizable figure in this building.
"It's always special because it started here. You know, here is where I first learned how to be a leader. Here's where I first learned how to challenge myself. Here is where teachers challenged me and set high expectations for me, and they saw potential in me that at the time I didn't see in myself," Aguilar said.
"I'll never forget where I come from."
Aguilar has moved on to the University of Michigan where he became the drum major of the Michigan Marching Band in April 2020. 13 ON YOUR SIDE spoke with him not long after that promotion. At the time, Aguilar didn't know what the upcoming season would be like.
Then word finally came down from the Big Ten Conference. There would be no fans, and no bands, in 2020.
"We had a virtual season, the first ever, and I hope the one and only in the history of the of the marching band, but we made it work," he said.
"We had two virtual halftime shows, which is really cool. Basically, we all record ourselves individually. And we put it together. And we shared that with our community. And so it was different, but still very fulfilling."
More than a year after taking the position, Aguilar finally got to enjoy performing in front of a gameday crowd at The Big House. His first in-person performance was Sept. 4, 2021 in a game against Western Michigan.
"It was a noon game. Our rehearsal starts at 7 a.m. That night we were in the stadium and I was fine. I was so excited for it, but I don't think it quite hit until I had former drum majors texted me saying 'Good luck. You've got this tomorrow,'" said Aguilar, who compared waking up the next day to the first day of school.
"That's how it felt for me. I had my uniform ready and everything that I will need for gameday. My alarms were set. I had everything planned for the biggest day of my life."
His big moment came during the pre-game performance when all eyes are on the drum major, who performs a traditional back bend. It's a maneuver where the drum major removes their hat and bends backward until their head touches the ground.
"The only thing I really remember is me strutting to the 20-yard line read before I do the back bend, and then slightly looking up, and I see myself on the big screen. And at that point, I'm like, I'm not looking at the screen anymore. I'm going to do this. It's go time. I had waited so long for that moment," he said.
"And I did it. I heard all the cheers from the crowd and I got up and I saluted the student section."
By the end of the season, when Michigan won 42-27 over archrival Ohio State in "The Game," that and other aspects of his performance had become second nature for Aguilar.
"I couldn't have asked for a better end to the season," he said of his final home game ever as the school's drum major.
"It's flown by, but I'm proud to finish what has been an amazing season in front of a very energetic environment."
From here, the Wolverines and the Michigan Marching Band will go on to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Conference Championship game. It's their first time ever competing in the title game since its inception in 2011.
If Michigan beats Iowa, it will likely mean a trip to the College Football Playoff where the Wolverines would get a shot at a national championship game where the band would perform on one of the biggest stages in college sports.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. Of course, it's hard not to think ahead," Aguilar said.
But regardless of how the rest of the season shakes out, the band has made history under the leadership of a Grand Rapids native. It's a chapter in his life Aguilar says it's hard not to get choked up about.
"I'll be honest, the 2020 season, the virtual season, was hard for so many people for so many reasons. There was so much going on. And we were trying to have as great of an experience as possible. And I think we did a fantastic job at that," he said.
"We have dealt with so many challenges, and we haven't run away from them. We've embraced them. We've overcome them. And I think what we have done will set an important precedent in the band. We have raised the standard for the Michigan Marching Band."
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