Grandest of All
By: BILL PLASCHKE
I wouldn't dare. I know the rules. Nobody touches you but senior citizens and little kids and celebrities and those six Purdue students who guard you with ax handles.
Those aren't ax handles, they're drumsticks.
Whatever. Some drunk waving a knife once had his arm broken by one of those drumsticks. Among revered and protected Indiana monuments, you rank second only to Gene Keady's hair.
So what are you trying to do, snare me for an interview?
Figures. We brought an entire football team here to play Washington in the Rose Bowl, and you want to talk to the 500-pounder who can't move unless pushed.
No, I don't want to talk to one of your offensive linemen, I want to talk to you.
You're as funny as a Ringo Starr movie.
Well, you are the most famous thing about Purdue. In fact, you're probably the most famous thing about this Rose Bowl. "The World's Largest Drum." A corny, yet compelling symbol of college tradition. It's things like you that have made the Rose Bowl so special for so many years. The game is not about football, it's about a feeling.
So what do you want to know, other than my exact height?
Why can't you give me your exact height?
My crew is afraid that if they announce my size, then somebody will just build a bigger drum. Let's just say I'm over 10 feet tall when mounted on my carriage.
Doesn't the University of Texas also have a giant bass drum?
Yeah. And back in 1961, we challenged it to a contest to see which drum was the biggest. My handlers drove and pushed me from Indiana to Wichita, Kan., to a band convention for the faceoff.
And what happened?
The Texas drum never showed, that little rim shot. It forfeited. I won. So there.
A little feisty, aren't we?
I turn 80 years old today. I've been hearing these questions since I was fitted with my first bullskin head in 1921, back when our band director wanted to build something to help us stand out among the ears of corn.
Will we notice you today?
You'll notice little else. I'll spin. I'll shake. I'll sprint downfield. While our band is running around playing the usual patriotic stuff, I'll be marching to the beat of a different . . . well, you know.
Well, not only me. My six crew members will push me and pound me and try not to get squashed. I've given them cuts and sprains and bruises. They wear cleats, batting gloves, ankle braces. To make the squad, they have to pass a physical exam, not a musical one.
But the students get paid well, right?
They are paid nothing. Purdue doesn't even offer a music major. The kids work at least 10 hours a week, usually more, for a couple of hours of band credit.
That's too bad.
But you know what they say? They say, "Instead of just attending Purdue, we feel like we are Purdue." Even after 80 years, that still sounds neat.
That's sort of the point of this interview. You don't have kids like this on the sidelines of NFL playoff games. You don't have the heartbeat of entire sports teams usually based in the whomp-whomp-whomp of a drum. So, do you have a solo?
A solo? This is a little embarrassing, but I'm so big, even my own band can't find room for me. I'm not written into any songs. My handlers just run me around and pound me whenever.
What about on the sideline during the game?
After every Purdue score, they hit me once for every point that we've scored at the time. I've heard about those Pac-10 defenses. I'm expecting to take a real beating today.
Do the players ever hit you?
After special wins, some of them might come down and take a swing. But you know the rules. Only special people can touch me. Harry Truman has hit me. Neil Armstrong has hit me. Rob Ballard has hit me.
He's the captain of this year's B.B.D. Crew. I wanted to get his name in the newspaper, seeing as he's not paid or anything.
Big Bass Drum Crew. What are you, conga impaired?
So why can't just anybody hit you?
Back in 1940, I was forced into a 14-year retirement because my heads kept cracking and they couldn't find a bullskin replacement. While my heads are made of a synthetic material today, and easy to replace, the school doesn't want to risk me injuring myself again.
So what are the exact rules?
I can be hit by anybody older than 60, or shorter than my crew members' waists, or important to the university.
Does all this happen at football games?
Oh, no. I've been in inaugural parades, in hospitals, at festivals, everywhere. I'm a bigger star in Indianapolis than Reggie Miller. The Colts even asked me to appear on a "Monday Night Football" game this year, but once I got there, they wanted to drape a cloth over me that would cover my Purdue logo, so my noble crew drove me home.
Do you have any enemies?
Put it this way. In Columbus, I am pelted with buckeyes. In Ann Arbor, I am hit with snowballs. Last year at the Alamodome, some jokers nailed me with frozen tortillas.
You ever feel like just getting lost?
I have been lost. This prankster--probably an Indiana University, Bob-Knight-loving fool--once lifted me into the rafters of the locked armory where I sleep. Then there was my last trip to the Rose Bowl.
Back in 1967?
On the trip there, I was sitting in the last car on the train. While passing through the Rockies, that car disconnected and rolled back toward Kansas City. Railroad workers eventually caught me and hooked me back up with barbed wire from a nearby fence.
How did you get here this time?
By truck, took five days, spent Christmas on the side of some road in New Mexico. But ask me what part of the turkey I had for dinner.
You're as funny as a Ringo Starr financial services commercial.
You can write me the check now.
For this interview.
I am a poor boy too, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.
This article appeared in the January 1, 2001 sports section of the Los
Monday, January 1, 2001