For the past seven years, the U.S. Army has selected 125 high school marching band students in the nation to play during the halftime show at the 2014 All-American Bowl.
This year it's Fountain Valley High School senior Thomas Tran's turn. He was one of the elite few to be chosen to play in front of thousands of people Jan. 4 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
U.S. Army representatives held a ceremony in the high school's band room Nov. 7 to officially invite the 17-year-old to play at the bowl game.
"Thomas embodies the characteristics and values of an Army-strong soldier, and we're proud to have him on our team and to have him wear the All-American color," Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Burgess said.
Thomas twirled a black track jacket bearing the U.S. Army logo and suavely slipped it on, garnering oohs and aahs from his band mates.
But it was nothing short of an uphill battle for Thomas to claim a spot alongside some of the best high school musicians.
"There was a section called the nominee list and there were about 500 to 600 students that were auditioning, and I wasn't a part of that nominee list," he said. "Those were only the people that were nominated by their music directors. I wasn't even nominated."
Instead, Thomas found himself among about 600 other students who were sending audition videos to the National Assn. for Music Education, vying for a spot on their own without benefit of a nomination. The odds didn't look so good for Thomas and his confidence was flagging.
"When I sent [my audition video], I thought I did well, but I wasn't confident in making it at all," he said. "This is a national-level marching band. I didn't feel like I was one of the best, and for my section, there were only eight baritones [positions] and there were about 50 people trying out for that. And I happened to be one of the eight that made it."
Assistant band director Mike Irons thought highly about Thomas' abilities. He had worked with Thomas since his freshman year and knew that the student was capable of becoming an All-American band member.
Irons said section leaders chosen during their junior year are generally shoo-ins for the same position in their senior year, but Thomas missed out at that level too.
"Thomas had some extra hard competition come his way, in terms of playing abilities and leadership qualities," Irons said. "When it came down to it, he was not the section leader this year, which was kind of a surprise to me. But the way he handled it, though, is really the reason why he's in this Army All-American band. He's just matured. He wasn't the leader, but he's still a leader.
"He could have very easily quit band or made the section leader's life a living hell as a senior. But instead he's helping out. He's being a contributing member of that section, and I'm just so proud of him."
The bowl game may be a few months away, but Thomas is already being hit with a flood of emotions. He said he expects to be intimidated when he first steps onto the field, but will be excited to play in front a large crowd and to go on his first trip alone without his parents.
"No parents. No nothing. Just me," he said. "I have this feeling like I'm a real man now."