- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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ROANOKE, Va. -- The outfits were straight out of Farmer in the Dell -- denim bib overalls, maroon T-shirts and matching maroon New Balance sneakers. Hardly the apparel you'd expect from five seemingly normal members of Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets.
Yet instead of having their names or the Aggie tradition they represented stitched across the front or the A&M logo painted on the back, it should have just said, "The Big Men on Campus." For that's what Texas A&M's yell leaders seem to be.
"At any school, being the quarterback is the biggest honor you can have," said junior yell leader Ryan Bishop. "At A&M, being the quarterback and being a yell leader -- they rank together. Nothing supersedes it."
Laugh if you must. Insist that these five guys are nothing more than male cheerleaders without their female counterparts. But if you stood in the heart of this city early Thursday morning, just as the clock struck midnight, Bishop and his four counterparts would have changed your mind.
For here, in the heart of Hokieland, just a stone's throw from Frank Beamer's own bar and grill, a few hundred Aggie fans filtered out of bars and met in the street for Aggie yell practice.
When the Aggies are home, some 30,000 fans attend practice at Kyle Field. On this night, given the 22-hour drive from College Station, the impending arrival of Hurricane Isabel and the weekday night kickoff, a few hundred fans -- mostly adults -- were in attendance.
Included in the group was one man wearing a coat and tie, like he had just stepped out of the office. Another man stood on the bumper of a Chevy Blazer, balancing his beer in one hand while trying to do all the Aggie hand signals with his other. And then there was 87-year-old Thelma Owen, who made the trip from Tyler, Texas, with her son Jimmy.
"Eighty-seven-year-old woman at the Midnight Yell -- how about that," said Thelma, who's attended yell practice every year since Jimmy attended A&M in 1967. "This is my favorite part of being an Aggie."
It wasn't some rah-rah-ree, kick 'em in the knee, rah-rah-rass, kick 'em in the other knee sort of celebration. This was five student-elected A&M students (more people voted in the yell leader election than for mayor of College Station) standing on a platform and spinning yarns about Hokie birds stumbling off cliffs and smashing their heads on bells.
"You know what a Hokie is, don't ya Aggies?" asked one of the leaders. "A turkey. In fact, a castrated turkey. That means they don't have any cajones, Aggies."
It was essentially a spirited pep rally, led by male cheerleaders. But both of those are terms that are banned in Aggie country. Probably because it's a pep rally that everyone is actually in to. There's no standing around watching here. And the yell leaders do more screaming and communicating with the crowd than they do round-off flip-flops.
The highlight of practice was certainly the yells, complete with precisely choreographed hand signals, leg kicks, arm motions and confident faces. They're the same yells that have been going on for ages. Everyone knows the words, everyone knows the hand signals.
Every mention of the Hokies was greeted with a unanimous "hiss," while a mention of the Aggies was followed with a, "Hooooo."
How entertaining was it to hear the reverberations of the Aggie war hymn bounce off downtown Roanoke's office buildings? Even the staff of Beamer's, after the bar had closed for the night, made the short walk to yell practice and peeked around the corner to check tradition out.
Nobody knows exactly when the tradition started, though Bishop said A&M has had yell leaders since 1907. The story is that the yell leaders, the team and the band were trying to drum up support for an upcoming game by walking through campus yelling cheers. Thus yell practice was born.
Yell leader elections are a huge deal on campus, with 12,000 students voting this year.
"You don't really choose to be a yell leader, it sort of chooses you," Bishop said.
Back in Aggieland, it's customary to bring a date. If you can't find a date, you bring a lighter. And when they turn the stadium lights out at Kyle Field at the end of practice, two lighters are supposed to meet up.
"And then they mug," Bishop said.
And why midnight?
"It's for college students -- they don't usually go to bed before two or three anyway," Bishop said.
Truth be told, it's almost more impressive that they do this in the middle of the night. Especially when you see people like Thelma Owen, fighting off late-night fatigue, putting her hands on her knees, waving her arms above her head and at the very end of practice, joining everyone else in yelling, "Beat the hell out of Virginia Tech."
"That's my favorite part," Thelma said. "When we all yell, 'Hell.'"
"That and all the drinking," her son Jimmy joked.
"Shhhh Jimmy -- you can't put that," she said. "They'll kick me out of the Southern Baptist Church."
Doubtful. Though there might be a spot reserved in the Aggie Yell Practice Hall of Fame.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3dSam Khan Jr.