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Dreams Come Blue: The Story Of The Blue Sapphire

From the very beginning, Gillian Brooks knew it was possible. For a young girl inspired by a flash of silver high against blue sky, the pursuit was laborious, and the path was clear.

For many, the road to becoming the Penn State Blue Band’s Blue Sapphire was simply too difficult. For others, it was too challenging to claim one of the most renowned and respected positions in all of collegiate twirling around the globe.

To Brooks, it was nothing but the dream. The goal that, with a lifetime of practice and a whole lot of heart, would come true on the field of Beaver Stadium in front of #107kStrong.

“It was always my dream,” she said with a smile bright enough to shine through her blue face mask. 

Yet dreams do not come easily, and even less often do they come true.

As we sat down with Brooks before her very last Homecoming parade, it was evident why this individual claimed the role exactly four years ago. A nationally recognized twirler and crowd-captivating performer, Brooks has boldly fulfilled the role of the Penn State Blue Band’s featured twirler, the Blue Sapphire, for the past four seasons.

With anticipation of the evening’s upcoming events, Brooks lit up brilliantly like the ambient batons she would twirl later in the dark Homecoming night.

“We’ve been talking about it all day and, honestly, all week…especially since we didn’t get to do it last year,” Brooks said. “You really only get four years here, and to have a whole year kind of be wiped away has been really hard.”

A season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic was a fate unimaginable for Brooks and so many others within the Blue Band. For an athlete who spent the past 17 years perfecting her craft, losing an entire season of performing with the Blue Band was crushing. Disappointment could have easily drained the featured twirler and made her lose focus within the ever-changing reality of 2020, especially when dealing with the devastation of missing out on a lifelong pursuit. Yet, she twirled again.

When faced with the challenges brought on by unprecedented times, the Blue Sapphire rose above reality to reclaim her senior season.  

“It just has made this whole season even more special and has really made me want to take advantage of every opportunity I can to perform and enjoy my last year as Blue Sapphire,” Brooks said.

It is this persevering spirit that turned a child inspired by familial legacy into the bold young woman performing before us each weekend. Hopeful for a return to in-person performances this year, Brooks trained for countless hours to perfect her twirling talent. With a commitment to her craft clear, she stayed motivated for an eventual return to Beaver Stadium.

“It’s literally just like the best place in the world…There’s nothing like the feeling you get walking into the stadium on gameday,” Brooks said.

Beaver Stadium serves not only as Brooks’ second home but is also the final destination of the Blue Band’s gameday march. Each Saturday, the Blue Sapphire has the unique opportunity to lead the entire band to Beaver Stadium from its nearby practice fields. Leading the march must be earned each season since there is no guarantee of continuing as the Blue Sapphire from year to year.

“It really keeps you on your toes, having to audition every year…And I always make sure I’m doing my hardest tricks as a reminder to keep practicing,” Brooks said, noting she’s earned the privilege every year.

No stranger to hard work, Brooks maintained this mentality of excellence to continue living her dream beyond freshmen year. Remembering those early years of her dream fulfilled was a true joy for the Sapphire. With sparkling eyes akin to the lights of Beaver Stadium after a 7:30 p.m. kickoff, Brooks recalled the overwhelming emotions associated with her very first twirl for the Penn State community. On September 1  2018, a home game in which Penn State defeated Appalachian State in an exciting 45-38 overtime win, Brooks stepped out onto the field for the very first time.

She told a story of interacting with a young fan before this first performance, who adorably told Brooks it was their first Penn State football game ever.

“Me too,” Brooks, a Farmington Hills, Michigan, native remembers responding with a chuckle. “Coming in as a freshmen, I didn’t know what to expect… You come into a lot,” she shared.

Becoming overwhelmed could have easily brought the strongest souls to their knees, but giving up was never on the table for Brooks.

Under the weight of performing for the entire Penn State community, Brooks leaned on both her mentors, Dr. Gregory Drane, director of the Penn State Blue Band, and Matt Freeman, coach and former featured twirler for Penn State. Twirling with her fellow majorette line has also been a dream come true, as Brooks always hoped to attend a Big Ten school with other twirlers.

“A lot of the girls are some of my closest friends…I’ve made such good memories with them,” she said.

Building a community of support and twirling excellence within her Blue Band family, Brooks says she’s enjoyed her time representing the university and cannot say enough to thank her entire circle for their support. When reflecting on working with her coaches and teammates, Brooks expressed deep gratitude for the organization.

“Penn State has really given me so much and has allowed me to really grow and learn,” she said.

Eternally grateful for her mentors and fellow Blue Band members, Brooks has nothing but love for the entire Penn State family. Penn State pride, an undeniable six pillars of integrity, respect, responsibility, excellence, discovery, and community, is something Brooks has always carried closely on and off the field.

“Penn State just respects their featured twirler so much, which is just amazing” she said, clearly overcome with gratitude for the experience of mutual love and respect granted by Nittanyville.

Twirling for the student section is a particularly joyful connection, and the Sapphire is humbled by the massive crowd of Penn State students embracing her talent each weekend.

For Brooks, making others happy under the blue and white wing of State is the ultimate reward for her dream come true. As we spoke, Brooks shined as a symbol of Penn State pride and summarized four years of an undeniable partnership between our featured twirler and the Beaver Stadium crowd.

“Our pride is just awesome at this university,” she said, beaming. “People are so proud to go to Penn State and be a part of this community.”

Grateful, graceful, and gracious, Brooks is the blueprint of what it means to be a Nittany Lion, crystal not only as sapphire but in clarity of soul as well. But love for Penn State is nothing new to her, and the actual experience of fulfilling the role was beyond imagination.

In addition to receiving the space to perform her craft and the unique opportunity to charm the audience of Beaver Stadium, becoming the Blue Sapphire offered the world for Brooks.

“Going to Penn State was my dream and goal…but even at that time, I really didn’t even know what was fully in store for me,“ she recalled. “These last four years, with the opportunities I’ve had, the people I’ve met, have far exceeded any expectation that I could have ever had being Blue Sapphire.”

While the rewards were unlimited, the pursuit was grueling. A lifetime commitment to twirling and hard work ultimately led Brooks to the 2018 Blue Sapphire audition in her senior year of high school. Through a grueling audition process that involved a pre-choreographed routine, interview with multiple panelists, and improv number, Brooks faced a single audition that not only determined her future college choice, but also determined if the stars would align for her dream come true.

But Brooks is no stranger to challenge. Before becoming the Blue Sapphire, she completed a laundry list of accomplishments within the twirling world. From being a nine-time national two-baton champion, three-time national three-baton champion, and six-time national strut champion, Brooks was a competitor from day one. She also won the Miss Majorette of America competition three different times, in the divisions of Juvenile (2010), Pre-Teen (2013) and Junior (2015). This intense competition required three different events including a solo, strut round, and modeling category, yet Brooks entered to win multiple times, an incredible accomplishment before ever setting foot in Beaver.

Still, becoming the Blue Sapphire meant everything to Brooks. All that pressure came to a boil on audition day.

“I felt like that day, my life was on the line…my future…the next step of my life was on the line,” she said.

But endless hours, blue and white dedication, and pure heart equaled a 17-year dream blossoming before the eyes of Happy Valley. Like the national strut champion she already was, Brooks stepped forward and claimed the role of her dreams. “The Blue Sapphire, Gillian Brooks,” would be brilliantly announced each weekend in Beaver Stadium, and the little girl who had never attended a game would leap forward gloriously in childhood fulfillment.

From viewing the Penn State Majorettes and featured twirler at nationals as a young girl, Brooks was inspired to strive for the stars.

“I would always see the featured twirlers and majorettes compete, and always looked up to them,” Brooks said.

From watching majorettes at countless competitions, one event stood out as a turning point in her creation of the dream.

“There also used to be a baton competition called the Blue Sapphire Classic,” Brooks said, detailing that the Penn State event inspired her at just 10 years old.  This unique competition, and many others, created the dream and drove Brooks to stick with her skills for a once in a lifetime achievement.

Reflecting on this early beginning and upcoming end has also been a bittersweet experience. When comparing her feelings as both a freshman and senior, the Sapphire is moved by the connections created within the community and beyond. Brooks recalls the emotions as strong from beginning to end, complete with the utter joy and sense of accomplishment that few get to experience in achieving their lifelong goal.

When she earned her dream role many moons ago, she was moved to tears at her hard work redeemed. Four years later, the emotions are only more powerful. Finding the grace to soak up every moment while still performing fully for the Penn State community has been a challenge in and of itself.

“Being a senior, there’s been so many times I’ve started crying,” she said.

From her favorite senior moment of twirling fire batons at the White Out game to singing the Alma Mater each weekend, Brooks is cherishing every moment in detail and with spirit. In her expression of emotions, Brooks reflects like a mirror of Penn State pride, a wonderfully honest display of what it truly means to be a champion.

“I really didn’t know everything that was gonna be in store for me,” she said. “It’s just been even better than I’ve ever imagined.”

Humbled by the love she’s received from Beaver Stadium tradition, the Sapphire explained another driving force behind her twirling career. Family values have always pushed Brooks to be her best self on and off the field, and an initial spark of interest in baton stemmed from an incredible legacy of twirling.

“My grandma twirled, and then my mom twirled, so they definitely were a huge part of my twirling experience,” Brooks explained, “I definitely just wouldn’t be here today without her and all that she has sacrificed for me. It wouldn’t be possible without her or my dad. His work ethic has really inspired me, too.”

From leaning on her family when achieving her lifelong dream to beaming with happiness when they visit her in State College, Brooks is almost iridescent when discussing her family back home in Michigan.

“It’s amazing to see after performing, how I make them proud,” she said. “They have turned into Penn State fans completely.”

With Brooks’ mother being an alumnus of Michigan State, we can all attest that this was no easy feat. Yet, the Sapphire managed to convert her family to bleed blue and white and even recalled a recent memory made during a Penn State-Indiana game. Following her performance, Brooks met her brother David, 20, right after halftime in the tunnel of her second home.

“He didn’t wanna admit that he was crying, but he had tears,” she told us with a quick laugh. “It was just a really special moment, to see that I’ve been able to make my family proud.”

Holding this idea close each weekend, Brooks has overcome the pressure associated with performing in Beaver Stadium. It is this mentality of positivity that inspires her each week to perform brilliantly, and the support of the crowd carries her through the often nerve-racking experience of performing live.

“One of the things that I’ll remind myself when I’m really nervous is representing Penn State is fun,” she said. “It’s been my dream my whole life, and I just have to go out there and enjoy it.”

After assuring us that dropping a baton was no cause for concern during a performance, she elaborated on her views when preparing to perform each week in Beaver. Awaiting the fabulous declaration of her named announced within the stadium, Brooks constantly keeps moving, practicing, and moving again before stepping onto the field.

Prepping for the game is also a sacred regimen, and a specific schedule is followed to prepare for performances in front of the massive crowd. From listening to her favorite female artists to perfecting her hair and makeup routine, Brooks creates the character of Blue Sapphire with complete individualism, representing female empowerment as precise strength within the male-dominated atmosphere of collegiate football.

Whether deciding between different hairstyles fit for inclement weather or choosing the shade of lipstick for the day, Brooks specifies every detail of the Blue Sapphire role and formulates this ultimate symbol of Penn State pride with self-expression.

“I actually really love to do my hair and makeup, it’s like my favorite thing in the world,” she sparkled. “It’s honestly such an enjoyable time for me. It’s kind of like a time for me to have time for myself during the game and get ready.”

Yet Penn State pride is never far from Brooks’ heart, even in the smallest details of eye shadow on gameday.

“I try to incorporate blue for Penn State, and I’ve been kind of changing it up lately, wearing a ponytail, but I also wear a bun. I feel like the ponytail’s a little more fun though,” she told us.

Within these simple decisions of self and designing her own magnificent costumes for performances, Brooks encapsulates the role of Blue Sapphire as an athlete and performer, never compromising identity in the face of fierce performance.

By demonstrating self-expression as strength before more than 100,000 fans, Brooks defends individualism and breaks the wall of traditional masculinity within college football. Still, this reminds us that she’s still just a student, albeit changing the world through representation of strength and self.

“I just buy makeup from the drug store. I’m a college student,” she explained with a chuckle.

In combining her dedicated practice schedule with this attitude of a star, the Blue Sapphire offered up a conclusion after four seasons in Beaver.

“Sometimes, you can get really wrapped up in being nervous and freaking out that you might drop…But at the end of the day, I love doing this,” she said.

Continuing her confident reflection, she hilariously commented on the positive spirit from the crowd in Beaver.

“I don’t know of anyone who actively hates me or is rooting against me,” she laughed. Feeling that geniality from the stands has only made the role of Blue Sapphire more fulfilling and pushed Brooks to remember her Penn State pride on and off the field.

“You’re representing your school, and you never know who might be watching you and who you might inspire,” she said.

When considering what it means to serve as Blue Sapphire, Brooks takes the position far beyond the baton. 

“I saw the featured twirler and majorettes and they inspired me, so I can only hope that I’ve done the same for some little girl or boy out there that wants to twirl at Penn State,” she said.

For the next generation of little boys and girls dreaming big, Brooks provides the admirable advice of a self-made champion. As one who never compromised identity or integrity while rising to the top, the Blue Sapphire turns to an age-old truth of accomplishment.

“Work hard. If you put in the time and effort, it usually will pay off,” she said. “Always believe in your dreams… because they can come true, and even be better than you ever would expect for them.”

With four years nearly completed as the Blue Sapphire, Brooks dreams again with a new goal of tremendous Penn State pride: dancing on the floor of THON 2022. Teaming up with fellow majorette and current THON Captain Kaitlyn Wassel, Brooks is raising money like the song this season in the hopes of participating in the event this year. This dream has not come true yet however, as Brooks and Wassel are currently registered as an independent dancer couple.

In the process of raising funds through their Donor Drive, the duo hopes to accomplish their final Penn State dream and dance on the floor as well as perform for the crowd. After working on a committee for the past four years, Brooks’ heart remains for the kids in her senior year.

“THON has been a big part of our experience,” Brooks said. “Performing at THON is one of my favorite things I get to do all year.”

After performing at THON in past years and working on committees to run the event, this duo claims a new goal- performing at the event for the crowd but also being on the floor as dancers.

“We’ve always wanted to work hard and raise the money… to be able to give to this organization that does so much for so many people,” Brooks said. “For us, it’s a perfect wrap on our Penn State experience.”

In her current efforts to raise money and dance at THON, the Blue Sapphire serves again as a champion of Penn State pride. As her 17-year twirling career comes to a close this winter, she pursues this new dream and remains grateful for her time spent as the Blue Band’s Blue Sapphire.

“It really has been the ride of a lifetime getting to twirl here,” she said. “It’s crazy to think that it’s almost over, but I’ve had the best time. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

After hearing this story of the Sapphire from Brooks herself, we walked home just in time for the Homecoming parade.

The practice field had darkened with the mystical mist of historic tradition. In the distance stood Beaver Stadium, glittering by the golden glow of twilight, eyes of the Lion emblem alight. As the band prepared for a wonderful evening and the sun set over the Blue Band Building, the night was enchanted against the backdrop of Mount Nittany.

Inspired by the exciting atmosphere rivaling opening day at Beaver, we recalled a truly special event from earlier in the day with newfound understanding. In remembering this moment, Brooks’ words rang true like the chimes of Old Main.

When we were standing out on the practice field earlier in the day, a gray sedan pulled up against the fence outside the Blue Band Building. Out from the backseat popped a little girl, excitedly running to the fence with joy unique in the youngest minds. No older than 5 years old, this little one sassily surveyed the scene and looked to her accompanying dad for approval to step closer.

Then, she spotted her:t Blue Sapphire, twirling terrifically with a line of majorettes behind her. With shimmering strikes against a white-blue sky, Brooks danced, twirled, and tossed the baton high, unaware of the life-changing moment she was inspiring for a young mind. Watching the Sapphire twirling spectacularly, the little one began to march in tandem with the band and gesture dramatically, mimicking the grace of Brooks herself.

As we walked home hours later, the field was now dark, yet the dream was truly complete.

The next generation had seen the Sapphire, and new dreams may have formed just as quickly as four years flew by. First inspired, now inspiring, Brooks had done exactly what she set out to do: drive the next generation in the same way she has been motivated.

As Beaver Stadium gleamed in the distance, the scene was unforgettable. Against the navy sky of Homecoming night, it seemed as if the Lion emblem shined even brighter, watching over the mystical evening. With decades of tradition fulfilled and the dream come true, the legacy was built to last and the future was unlimited.

Four seasons ago, Brooks strutted onto the field of Beaver Stadium and changed the game of collegiate twirling. With grace, poise, and undeniable confidence, she made her lifelong pursuit a glorious reality for herself and Happy Valley.

The ultimate symbol of Penn State pride, Brooks reminds us to reach even higher than the batons she’s thrown for seventeen years. Serving valiantly for four years, the Blue Sapphire closes her senior season with the attitude of a champion and presence of a star.

While daring dreams may not always come true, for Gillian Brooks, they became blue.

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie Palmieri is a current sophomore with an undecided major from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang with her sassy sidekick, 17-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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