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some text Andy Bittenbender and his sister DeeDee at a Marching Mocs performance. (Contributed photo by Debbie Bittenbender)

Andy Bittenbender is the beating heart of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Marching Mocs.

Bittenbender, 21, is over 6 feet tall and plays one of the biggest instruments on the field — a massive bass drum that can rattle ribs from 100 yards away.

"Powerful" is how Andy says it makes him feel to hammer the bass drum on autumn football Saturdays.

It's a big accomplishment for Andy, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was a toddler and was essentially nonverbal when he was little.

He did not always feel as powerful as he does today. He is the drum captain at UTC, a role he also filled a few years back at Red Bank High School.

Asperger's is a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum that can cause difficulties with language, social interaction and physical coordination.

After he was diagnosed as a toddler, Andy attended the Siskin Children's Institute in downtown Chattanooga. His parents, Tim and Debbie Bittenbender, remember those early years when a teacher at Siskin had to bribe Andy with Pringles potato chips to get him to sit down.

"Back then [when he was at Siskin], I thought there was no way he was going to be ready for adulthood," his mother said.

But his parents noticed early on that Andy was always drumming around the house.

"I think he has always had an aptitude for music," Tim Bittenbender said.

At Red Bank Middle School, Andy eagerly chose to play drums in the band. He learned to play through private lessons and practice software called Smart Music.

"He just kept at it," remembered his mom. "If he didn't quite get the notes right, he didn't stop."

Andy got lots of support from his family, too, including his sisters DeeDee and Heidi.

Heidi was Andy's shield at school, remembered his mom.

"If anybody was going to mess with Andy, she'd drop her backpack quicker than anything and say, 'If you are going to pick on my brother, you've got to pick on me first.'"

When Andy was elected 10th-grade class president at Red Bank High School, Heidi was the one who pulled up to the family's house in Red Bank, honking her car horn.

"You're looking at the new class president," she announced.

Meanwhile, DeeDee was so moved by Andy's experiences at Siskin that she recently graduated from Belmont University in Nashville with a doctorate in occupational therapy, and now she works with children with disabilities in Smyrna, Tenn.

some text Members of the Marching Mocs play for kids at the Siskin Children's Institute, where Andy Bittenbender attended as a child. (Contributed photo by Debbie Bittenbender)

Meanwhile, Andy learned that being in the band was a good way to make friends.

"It helped me be part of something bigger than I could ever dream or imagine," he said.

Andy is a music education major at UTC with a minor in entrepreneurship. Besides the marching band, he participates in the jazz ensemble and plays a variety of percussion instruments, including the vibraphone, drum set and snare drum.

After college he wants to open his own private lesson studio.

"Andy is a miracle," said his mom.

"He works really, really hard," his dad said.

His mom remembered that at church, Andy's first spoken line in a program was, "For nothing is impossible with God."

Recently, members of the Marching Mocs visited the Siskin Children's Institute to play for the students.

That day, Andy turned to one of his buddies and said proudly, "I went here."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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