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A Mark Duffner win wasn’t the only peculiarity viewers of the University of Maryland’s nationally televised game against Georgia Tech beheld Thursday night. There was also Emery Harriston, guy baton twirler, spinning his stick as the UMD marching band blared out its movie theme-themed halftime show.
Harriston is one of the few—some say the sole—nondistaff twirler now performing with a marching band in major college football. He’s also one of the best, even though a day of snow and freezing rain left the playing field in horrendous condition and made for something of a baton death march for Harriston when he and his bandmates took their last turn before a Byrd Stadium crowd this year.
“I couldn’t do a lot of the moves I’d normally do,” a red satin-clad Harriston modestly shrugged after his 15 minutes of ESPN exposure were up.
Humility aside, it’s doubtful that anybody in the venue or among the TV audience could detect that Harriston’s high-speed, high-toss, multibaton act wasn’t up to par.
“Emery is spectacular!” gushed Richmond Sparks, the school’s band director, as he watched his star pupil perform from the sidelines. “He’s so athletic, and he’s got much more body strength, and that allows him to throw the baton higher, and just do so much more than other twirlers. And his acrobatics are sensational! Everybody loves Emery at Maryland. No doubt about it, he’s one of the best I’ve had here.”
Harriston is the only male twirler Sparks has seen in his 14 years as Maryland’s band director. And he’s sure seen a lot of him: Harriston has been a featured twirler in College Park since 1988. In other words, Harriston’s gender isn’t the only thing that sets him apart from other NCAA twirlers. Only students in good standing at the university are allowed to participate in the band, so most Terp marchers are, well, of typical college age. Before the Tech game, in fact, a ceremony was held to honor the unit’s senior members, the assumption being that when they get out of school they’ll move on to other pastimes.
Harriston, however, is 34, and he finished his undergraduate studies a decade ago. Not at Maryland, either, but at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Now, during the typical workday, while the other marchers are slogging though classes at College Park, Harriston is at a desk in the offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earning his pay as a computer specialist. To maintain his eligibility, Harriston signs up for one class per year.
“I usually look for something in computer programming, since that’s what I do,” he laughed.
When he’s not twirling, that is—something Harriston first picked up back in the seventh grade in his native Charleston, W.Va.
“I really just wanted to be a drum major in the marching band at my school when I was young,” Harriston recalls. “I never could get that job, but I found out I could be the baton twirler, and that I liked twirling.”
The watershed moment in Harriston’s twirling career came when he entered a local competition, the Kanawha Valley Junior High Majorettes Festival, and tossed and spun his way to victory in the Boy Twirler category. Harriston wasn’t the only male entrant, but the festival’s title made it clear that dudes weren’t meant to be the focal point. He laughingly admits the competition in Kanawha Valley wasn’t all that stiff.
“The big prize in the whole festival was for the top team, and since you score points in every category, it was important to get somebody entered in the boy twirler category, too,” he says. “That’s why all the teams were looking for guys like me.”
Harriston twirled his way through high school and hoped to continue after enrolling at West Virginia University. At the big state school, Harriston got his first brush with gender bias.
“Since I started twirling I’d been thinking about how great it would be to twirl with a big college marching band,” he says. “But I never was given a chance at the University of West Virginia. They totally discriminated against male twirlers there, so I quit trying.”
Upset by the slight, Harriston put down his baton and transferred south to Jacksonville State, where he was offered a gymnastics scholarship. He moved to the Washington area in 1987 after graduation, but his yearning to twirl for a big-time marching band persisted. His pitch to Sparks to sign on with Maryland, possessor of the only major college football program inside the Beltway, was quickly accepted.
When not working out with other UMD marchers—the band practices three days a week, three hours per session during football season—Harriston twirls on his own at local recreation centers and parks. The extra work, he hopes, will take him someplace other than just College Park. Like, say, Sydney, Australia, in the year 2000.
“There’s a pretty big movement to get twirling in the Olympics, and I definitely think it deserves to be there,” Harriston asserts. “Synchronized swimming is an Olympic sport, isn’t it? Twirling is at least as deserving.”
After the Tech game, a lot of the talk around Byrd Stadium concerned whether the Terps’ huge upset win would be enough to save Coach Duffner’s job. Sparks had more important things to worry about than the coach’s return, however.
“Emery hasn’t told me if he’ll come back for another year,” the director moaned. “I certainly hope he does. It’ll be tough to find another one like him, I know that.”—Dave McKenna