COLUMBUS, Ga. -- As he grew up in the Mobile, Ala., area with a family full of Auburn University alumni, it was natural for Tripp Gulledge to root for the Tigers.
Like any Auburn fan, his favorite annual college football game is the Iron Bowl, when the Tigers play archrival Alabama.
Like no other Auburn fan, however, when the Tigers clash with the Crimson Tide on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium, he will have such an involved connection to boosting the team in a game he can't see.
Gulledge is the only blind member of the 380-strong Auburn University Marching Band. But like the War Eagle mascot, the Auburn spirit has enabled Gulledge to soar above his disability.
"It's probably going to be the most, in terms of atmosphere, the most exciting thing I've literally been a part of," said Gulledge, a freshman enrolled in Auburn's music education and music performance programs.
Thanks to the band graciously welcoming him, Gulledge gushed about the staff and its members.
"Everyone here has been willing to work as hard as they need to for me," he said. "That's not something you take for granted or expect wherever you go."
The band's director, Corey Spurlin, returned the compliment.
"It's like any other student with a great attitude: It spreads, and others follow suit when they see that," Spurlin said. "Tripp's super talented. He's a great player. He has a wonderful attitude, very respectful, works very hard, and he really embodies the characteristics we're looking for in our band members. He embodies the Auburn creed, which we want our students to live by, so he's been a major asset."
Although he has marched with the band at two of this season's games, the Iron Bowl show will be too intricate to accommodate Gulledge. But he plays his mellophone with the band in the stands at every game and, as a good team player, he simply is thankful to do his part.
So when the band marches Saturday onto Pat Dye Field, Gulledge said, he intends to be one of the members helping to roll out a marimba or a xylophone.
"Hopefully, I'll get on one of the bigger percussion instruments that takes two people," he said, "so that way I can kind of be in the back, supporting while they kind of steer."
He added with a laugh, "It's probably the safest option."
Gulledge was born with a disorder called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which affects mostly premature babies and can cause blindness when abnormally rapid blood vessel growth causes the eye's retina to detach.
Out of an average of 3.9 million infants born in the United States each year, approximately 15,000 have some degree of ROP, but only about 500 of them become legally blind, according to the National Eye Institute.
Laser surgery at 6 weeks old preserved a small amount of vision in Gulledge's right eye, although doctors weren't able to recover the sight in his left eye. His visual acuity of 20/800 in early childhood improved to 20/400 by late elementary school. That means he could see something at 20 feet away with the same clarity as someone with normal vision seeing it from 400 feet away.
So he watched Auburn football games with his face right in front of the TV.
But in eighth grade, Gulledge's retinas started to detach again. A specialist in Miami gave him injections of a medicine that stabilized the blood vessel growth. Then he had surgery.
"The operation was successful, but it comes in two phases," Gulledge said. "The procedure uses a bubble of oil to force the retina to grow back, and the oil has not yet been removed. When that oil is removed, I will gain some sight back in the right eye, but until then, I only perceive light and occasionally some shape and color. My doctor is waiting for a permanent solution, as procedures like the ones I have received can't really fix a retina if it were to detach for a third time."
So he lost his limited sight - hopefully only temporarily - for a chance at improved sight.
"It took me a couple of days to not be upset about it," he acknowledged. "They (the doctors) couldn't have known."
Sort of similar to his outlook on being so close yet so far away from the game-day experience.
"I'm OK with that because there's hope for the future," he said. " It's interesting that kind of sacrifice had to be made, and it took me forever to figure it out."
While he attended Murphy High School in Mobile, where he earned Alabama All-State Band honors all four years, the marching patterns were less complicated than at Auburn
"My sophomore year, I marched the regular show," he said. "They were able to change the drill so that, no matter what the shape was, I might end up in the wrong section - I might be a horn in the middle of a bunch of flutes - but I only had to move forward or backward or left to right. There wasn't a lot of strange angles or marching in circles or whatever. At certain points in the show where we would stand still for a few counts, someone would come and get me and put me back in position."
That's not possible at the college level, Gulledge said.
"We're doing, technically, six different shows this year, but four different really involved ones, whereas, we did one in high school the whole year," he said.
The day before preseason camp started in August, he met with Spurlin and talked about the possibilities.
"Not really just what can you do and what can't you do but what's safe," Gulledge said. "Our pregame show, they're like jogging, so at that pace, you're going to run into someone if you can't see them and react to what's around you."
Gulledge learns the band's tunes by using notation computer software. It isolates the digital version of the music for his instrument, the mellophone, a three-valved brass similar to the French horn. He practices the music by listening to it on an mp3 file. Then, at band practice, he learns the drills by holding onto a fellow member's shoulder.
Spurlin and Gulledge agreed on two games where it made sense for him to march.
At the Jacksonville State game, Gulledge was connected by a chain to the band members directly in front and behind him so he could stay in line and take the right steps. But they had to come up with a different plan at the San Jose State game, because the show required band members to pass through the horn section. So one of the members who wouldn't have been marching acted as Gulledge's guide by placing her hands on his shoulders and directing him from behind.
Marching at those games, Gulledge said, "was pretty great, but I really wasn't focusing on `Wow! This is awesome!' I was really focusing on the mechanics. It's so important that I don't stick out like a sore thumb, so I didn't want to be caught up in that. But I couldn't get away from the fact that it was a pretty cool, chilling thing."
Cool, indeed, said Auburn junior Brian Stahl, one of the band's two section leaders for the 31 mellophone players.
"It felt like the culmination of a lot of effort, and it was that, certainly," Stahl said. "I was really excited for Tripp. I think the whole section was, the whole band was."
Asked to rate his performance, Gulledge said with a smile, "I think I did pretty well; I didn't run into anybody. A couple of times in practice, when we would march off the field, I'd bump somebody in the head with my instrument, but, by the time we got to the game, I cleaned that up."
Stahl admitted that, when Spurlin told the band's leaders before preseason camp that a blind student would join them, "we were a little apprehensive. We didn't know how it was going to work, but it's been great, absolutely a lot of fun for the whole section, Tripp included."
Stahl called Gulledge "very hard working. He clearly cares a lot about what we do here. He has a really powerful drive to do the best that he can to succeed. That's been really good for the band and everyone here."
All of which has inspired the band members.
"It just shows the value of hard work," Stahl said. "It's really pushed everyone to give it their all. This is an activity that, if you're not careful, can be pretty taxing, physically and mentally, but just seeing Tripp work so hard every day, that's really kept everyone going."
Gulledge used to keep track of the games by listening to the radio play-by-play. Now, that would distract him from hearing which tunes to play, so he relies on fellow band members to describe the action.
He would like to obtain master's and doctoral degrees to teach music in high school and then college. He also feels compelled to train guide dogs for the blind.
"This has come from my new partnership with my yellow Labrador retriever, Dakota," he said. "I have seen that with an education background and personal guide dog user experience, this will be a perfect place for me to give the guide dog handling experience to many others down the road."
Band practice, however, isn't such a good place for a dog, so members volunteer to drive and guide Gulledge to and from the field.
"I knew that this is what I want to do, and there will be a place where someone will help me find my role," he said. "This is where that place was."
While he remains hopeful that his involvement will increase, he also is content to contribute however he can.
"We may find ways to have me doing more things," Gulledge said. "We may not, but, either way, this is one of the places on campus where I decided to pour most of my time and effort.
"I'm very willing to be patient for what I'm still able to get out of it. I'm still able to enjoy what I'm doing even without marching shows. I know that they're willing to work with me, so I'm willing to be as patient as I have to."
Until then, Gulledge will enjoy his unique role in this Iron Bowl.
"I am excited to be part of something that is the most important day on the football calendar for so many people in our state," he said. "War Eagle!"