NEW YORK—When Terrel Stowers started his nonprofit marching band for at-risk youth seven years ago, he would have never thought it would one day be leading pre-game entertainment at the Super Bowl.
“Being in the Super Bowl is a once in a lifetime dream for us,” Stowers said.
This week, the Marching Cobras of New York—middle and high school students from New York City’s five boroughs and Westchester—will be kicking off festivities at Super Bowl Boulevard as fans start arriving.
In addition to leading the Vince Lombari Trophy up Broadway on Jan. 26, Marching Cobras will perform for the pre-game Game Day Fan Plaza at the MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 with the Jets cheerleaders and other groups.
“I’m excited not only for myself,” said Marijah Alicea, 17. “A lot of kids don’t get this experience, so I’m very happy.”
Marijah has been in the band since she was 13, and is now part of the flag team. She is also an instructor for the flag team and dancers.
The band has grown to about 60 members, mainly through word of mouth, with applicants coming in every day. The members practice five days a week, four hours a day, and also on Saturdays if they’re not performing.
“We’re different from a lot of bands. We’re a showstopper band, so we dance, we rouse the crowd,” said Levar Burnes, 18. “Hip-hop to jazz to some Latin to R&B songs. … We switch them up to get the crowd off their feet.”
Being Giants fans, the group had sent one of its videos to the NFL, hoping to perform at one of their games.
“They saw our video and basically said, ‘Listen, could you guys just do the Super Bowl?’ Of course!” Stowers said. “It was great.”
Since the band found out about it three months ago, the members have been hard at work perfecting new routines and music, and getting ready for the cold.
Donesha Jacobs, 16, has been dancing with the group for five years and said she feels very nervous. They’ve been working on a number of new routines for the upcoming performances at the Super Bowl, but being together with the group has made her feel comfortable.
“Dancing with myself is different than dancing with family—because that’s what they are—it’s more fun,” Donesha said.
All the band members feel strongly about their sense of family.
“They’re like a second home to me,” said Burnes, who plays the snare drums. Burnes said he’s always had a passion for music, playing piano and guitar, but Marching Cobras fed more than his musical interest. “It’s a sense of upbringing, and a sense of responsibility and a character to uphold to.”
Stowers started the program with just a few dollars out of his own pocket and five students. They practiced at the Boys and Girls Club in Yonkers. They took busses and trains to parades whenever they could, and slowly the band grew.
Stowers is a New Jersey native, but went to school in the South, where the big marching bands inspired him.
“And coming back up north, a lot of the band programs were cut,” Stowers said. “[It] inspired me to just keep some kind of a band program going. We work with a lot of [school] districts that don’t have bands.”
Five years ago, the Marching Cobras started collaborating with St. Christopher’s Clark Academy, and have continued both as a school and community program. A focus on academics is a core part of the program, and the band members take their principles seriously.
Cobras stands for: commitment, obedience, belief, respect, and achievement. The majority of the members started without musical experience. Not only have they learned how to play music through the program, they have also learned social skills, how to focus, as well as other skills. Stowers hopes it gives them a path into higher education and a successful career.
But it hasn’t been easy, and there’s a continuous need to raise funds to pay for travel and equipment, among other expenses. The Cobras do regular luncheons and breakfasts as well as online crowdfunding.
Stowers is glad the program gives members the opportunity to see places outside of New York, such as Pennsylvania, Delaware, and this year West Virginia.
“We don’t want to limit the amount of kids that can come into our program,” Stowers said. “I don’t ever want to have to say, ‘You can’t come because we don’t have enough drums.’”
But he receives applications every day and the band already has more members than instruments. The band has 12 snare players, but only six snare drums.
Aaron Byers, 16, had seen the Marching Cobras perform at his school and became interested.
“At first I just wanted to do it as a hobby, but it became a life experience,” Aaron said. “Everything: the bonding, the friendship, the family.”
“When I go home that’s all I do, all day, every day, as much as I can to get better,” said Javonte Mullin, 14, who plays the snares.
Many of the members also said the program has helped them focus on something like dance and music instead of getting into trouble as they had before.
Amari Marshall plays the tenor drums. He said, he used to get into fights and all kinds of trouble; now spends five days a week and many hours a day practicing on the drums.
“This really helped me,” Marshall said. “It gives you an outlet.”
Flag team leader Marijah feels inspired to help new members in the same way the program has helped her.
“I wanted to join because this program helped me get out of bad situations and I wanted to take other kids out of the same situation,” Marijah said.