On Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, K-State saxophone player Charlie Wilks got ready to play in front of a crowd of 53,073 people he couldn’t see.
Wilks, a freshman majoring in music education, became blind by the age of 6, the result of a brain tumor that crushed his optical nerve.
As the Wildcats attempted to make a final score before halftime, K-State Band Director Frank Tracz began telling some fans on the front row about Wilks’ blindness. He expressed confidence in the upcoming performance, saying he wasn’t worried about Wilks, who had already proven his abilities.
“I see him out there doing what he’s doing out there, and I realize I don’t have a damn thing to complain about,” he said.
Tracz said he could imagine going through everyday life being unable to see, much less joining the marching band. “I wish I knew what he was thinking while he’s here, being able to hear and feel but not see what’s happening at the game,” he said.
Band members had a walk-through of their routine Friday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, and Wilks struggled at times trying to get the movements right. Wilks’ steps consisted of marching backward on the 50-yard line. Though his part was fairly simple, without sight he had to figure out whether he was moving at the right time or if his strides were too short or long for the formation.
“I’ve gotta be right on with everybody else,” he said. “The length of my steps has to be perfect or else I’ll get off.”
It was important to prepare for Saturday, which represented the first time Wilks marched in front of an audience on any level. He said he was in his high school band but didn’t really get a chance to march.
“I have limitations, and I accept I have limitations,” he said. “But I accept my limitations can be overcome with adaptation.”
Wilks had overcome similar obstacles as a middle school and high school student in Emporia by playing football. The grandson of Al Reynolds, who played in Super Bowl I for the Kansas City Chiefs, Wilks’ story was featured on ESPN’s E:60 show in 2009.
Despite already having played football when it didn’t seem possible, Wilks said being in the marching band is even tougher.
“Marching band is very visual based,” he said. “You gotta be able to mark yourself with the people around you. You gotta be able to judge your spacing.”
Examples of this could be seen throughout practice Friday. Some of the band members read from their sheet music as they played. Wilks uses Braille to read music. But with both hands preoccupied with his saxophone, Wilks didn’t have that luxury.
He also couldn’t see the conductors or the other gestures made by band staff members for the band. “Look left and right,” Tracz said to the band at one point during the practice. “Look at the alignment.”
Despite some difficulties, Wilks said he was thankful to have people around him who were helpful.
“Fortunately, the reason they call it a band is because you have people around you who are always willing to help you,” he said. “That’s what it means to be in a band.”
Wilks has played the saxophone since the sixth grade. He said he doesn’t consider picking up on music and marching to be harder because of his blindness.
“When you put me on an instrument, you put me on the same playing field as everybody else,” he said.
Wilks said he’s willing to face whatever trials come because he loves what he does.
“When you set out to do anything in life, if you have the willpower to do it plus the concentration and focus, it’s possible to do it whether or not you have sight,” he said.
Wilks said he would like to become as a high school music teacher when he graduates, but eventually he wants to be a college professor.
“Music isn’t just playing notes for me,” he said. “It’s the way I express myself. It’s so hard to even describe what music is to me. It makes me feel like I can contribute something.”
Wilks said he knows some people look at him at as a motivational figure because of his involvement, first with football and now with the marching band. “People out here see me doing these things and they don’t know what to think about it,” he said. “It makes them try harder. That’s what I like about it.”
Still, there’s a difference between being an inspiration and being underestimated. Wilks said people don’t expect a blind person to be able to do the things that he does, which is why he does what he does.
“I want people to look past this,” he said, holding up his cane to emphasize his point.
On Friday, it was just about making sure he would be ready for his debut at halftime. “I’m going to work diligently and hopefully be able to march it tomorrow,” he said.
After taking a second to pause, Wilks made a more assertive statement. “I will march it tomorrow,” he said.
Once the clock ran out to end the second quarter, the band ran out and took its place on the field. A band member led Wilks on the field since he had been without his walking cane since the band began walking to the stadium two hours prior.
The performance started and everything that Wilks said Friday seemed to come to fruition. The band - his “team” - helped him as the person in front of him counted so he would know when to move. Wilks began to march backward in alignment with the rest of the band. His movement and foot patterns matched up for the rest of the performance as well.
Unless someone was looking specifically for the fifth person in the row on the 50-yard line, Wilks probably wasn’t noticed by anybody.
Even before stepping onto the field Saturday, Wilks said he was thankful for having the opportunity to march for K-State. “It’s been an experience of a lifetime,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”