James Gray

Detective Todd Bircher of the Austin Police Department is the founder of the Austin Police Pipe and Drum Corps, an organization of bagpipers and drummers. Bircher started the band in order to play at the funerals of officers killed in the line of duty.
Photo Credit: Carlo Nasisse | Daily Texan Staff

When taking a break from the daily responsibilities of policing, a group of Austin Police officers play drums and bagpipes in funerals, parades, festivals and community events. 

After listening to bagpipes artists at an officer’s funeral, APD Detective Todd Bircher began practicing the instrument on his own. Five years later, he formed the Austin Police Pipe and Drum Corps.

Bircher said the police community did not immediately celebrate the idea of a departmental pipes and drum corps.

“You know, down in Texas and the South, [bagpipes are] not around — that’s northeast stuff,” Bircher said. “It was a little bit of a sell, especially among the more traditional Texas officers.”

Watch: The Emergency Services Pipes and Drum Association, explained.

Once the idea of bagpiping caught on, the group quickly expanded to include firefighters and emergency medical technicians, as well as members of police departments from across the state. All together, the statewide group calls themselves the Emergency Services Pipe and Drum Association. Bircher plays as a pipe major for the APD corps and a bagpiper for the state association.

James Gray, a Fort Worth Police officer and member of the state association, said his interest in playing bagpipes stemmed from a visit to the national police memorial in Washington, D.C., where he watched live performances from other pipes and drums bands. Gray said he purchased a set of bagpipes and began practicing to join the association as soon as he returned to Fort Worth,.

Gray said the performances are about more than just the music — they’re about giving back to the community and making the police force more accessible in general.

“When we’re in our kilts, that’s a time that we’re there for the community … just to give back,” Gray said. “It gives people a chance to come talk to you about music. It gives them an opportunity to see that we’re just people too.”

Performing at the funerals of officers who are killed in the line of duty is the top priority of police pipes and drums corps, according to Bircher.

“I don’t ever want to do that,” Bircher said. “I hope we never do it again, but that’s why we’re here — I’m honored to do that.”

Bircher said the corps serves to honor fallen officers and provide comfort to those officers’ families.

“It helps give clarity and purpose to what would otherwise be a senseless death,” Bircher said. “For a family to see that tribute paid to those officers illustrates the purpose of what they did. They went out and risked their lives to keep the rest of us safe.”

Bircher said the band members have various levels of musical expertise. APD officer Geoff Sumner, who joined the group in summer 2013, said he studied music in college before becoming a police officer. He said mastering the bagpipes is a challenge he enjoys.

“Everybody honors a fallen brother in their own way, but I feel like, as a musician, the best way for me to do it would be to ceremoniously perform for them with the bagpipes,” Sumner said.

The bands also play for civic and holiday events, such as officer graduations, officer promotions and St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

“The most fun is probably St. Patty’s Day because that’s the one day a year we’re kind of rock stars,” Bircher said. “Every other day, we’re just guys wearing skirts, playing bagpipes.”

Jonathan Gray (32) is corraled by Kansas defenders during the Longhorn's 21-17 win over Kansas in Lawrence last weekend. Gray rushed for a career-high 111 yards on 18 carries. 

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Johnathan Gray didn’t grow up idolizing any halfback legends. Instead, he watched tape of his dad.

That’s not to say his dad, James, was a slouch himself. James Gray was a local high school legend halfback, just like Johnathan, and went on to become the second-leading rusher in Texas Tech history.

However, despite their shared DNA, the pair are quite different. Johnathan may have taken pieces of his dad’s game and incorporated them into his own, but the way they approach each rushing attempt is about as similar as the job of the kicker and an offensive lineman.

“He was bigger than I was more of a power back, downhill runner,” Johnathan Gray said. “He’ll run somebody over before he makes somebody miss and I’ll make somebody miss before I run them over. We’re two different backs with two different styles of running.”

Still, it can’t be denied that James had a heavy influence on Johnathan’s ascent to the top of the Texas running back heap. First at Aledo High School where he shattered the record books and became the No. 1 tailback recruit in the class of 2012. Now less than a year later, he’s atop the depth chart at Texas and will make his first career start when the Longhorns roll into Lubbock this Saturday.

Gray’s elevation has been extraordinarily quick for a freshman who was fourth on the depth chart only eight weeks ago, and even Johnathan admits he’s surprised to be a starter so quickly.

However, head coach Mack Brown had nothing but a laundry list of positive things to say about his newly-minted 18-year-old starter who’s already rushed for 435 yards on only 81 carries.

“Johnathan is really tough,” Brown said. “He is so mature for a freshman. He’s got good ball security. He can catch. He’s learning his pass protections better.”

Johnathan may be making his first start, but he’ll have a tough time convincing his parents to put on even a fraction of burnt orange in the stands.

Both his mom and dad attended Texas Tech, and there has been quite a bit of back-and-forth family ribbing between the three leading up to the game. Though Johnathan says he’ll wait until after the final gun to really lay it on thick.

“I’m going to Texas, they went to Tech,” Johnathan Gray said. “It’s kind of a rivalry in the house. They talk smack. I’ll just be quiet and wait till the results after the game.”

Still, despite the friendly family rivalry, Johnathan admits his dad only wants what’s best for him. This explains why, even early on, James tried to shy away from molding Johnathan directly in his shadow. The two have completely different builds and personalities on the field, and James wanted Johnathan to become his own man.

“My dad said ‘You’re your own man, and I can only lead you so far and the rest you have to take on your own.’” Johnathan Gray said. “He wants me to be better than what he was in college.”

But it goes farther than that. James never made it in the NFL and he wants his son to reach that level. It won’t be easy, but Johnathan takes the first big step towards that goal this weekend with his first start.