ATHENS, Ga. — Twenty minutes before kickoff at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, the crowd falls silent.
The low brass section of the Bulldogs band unleashes a held chord down on the field, but every Bulldog fan points an index finger at a uniformed young woman standing in the corner of the upper deck marked “SOUTH.” Senior trumpeter Nicole Hill begins a slow, mournful version of “Battle Hymn” that lasts no longer than 10 seconds.
Just as the goosebumps begin to recede, the voice of legendary announcer Larry Munson echoes across the stadium. The beloved Munson died in 2011, but he lives on in the pregame ceremonies.
The “lone trumpeter” spectacle is a recent innovation in tradition-thick Athens. Around the turn of the millennium, a group of young men wrote the slowed-down “Battle Hymn” trumpet solo as a joke, but it stuck.
“Everybody was so mesmerized by it,” third-year trumpeter Brian Walker said. “They decided to put it in the first game. Now we do it at the Dawg Walk" — a pregame ceremony during which Georgia players walk into the stadium — "we do it during the game, and we do it after the game."
This year, approximately 20 of the 67 Redcoat trumpeters were selected for a final audition. Four trumpeters are selected from that group for the three game day performances; one student sits out each week. Hill's rendition of "Battle Hymn" was enough to land her one of the elite spots.
"To be honest," she said,"I didn't even think I had a chance to do it."
The most prestigious honor rests with the trumpeter who performs just before the game is about to start.
On Saturday, that was Hill.
Two hours before kickoff, the gates were yet to open, but Hill was in her perch on the south side of the stadium.
“I feel really honored,” she said. “I’m still kind of grasping that I’m going to be able to do this right now.”
A soft-spoken native of Savannah, Ga., she dreamed of being the lone trumpeter since her senior year of high school. Her family doesn’t follow college football, but they made their first visit to a Georgia game to see Hill perform before one of the nation’s largest crowds.
Most of the people in the building would give her their full attention.
“I’m going to try not to look at them,” Hill said of the pointing crowd. “It’s going to be kind of intimidating in front of 92,000 people.”
Perfection is not a given. The sound system cut out on Sept. 21 before the trumpeter could get to his third note, and any anxious musician can ruin the tempo.
But on Saturday morning, talent won out over nerves.
On a day that Hill described as one of the most important in her life, she performed her 14-note solo flawlessly to the rousing cheers of the Georgia faithful.
"Ever since I was a high school senior and I saw it, I knew that's what I wanted to do when I got here," Hill said. "I just practiced really hard because I didn't think I had a chance."
Greg Bowers is supervising editor.