And now starring … Hokie Nation
Story by Chris Graham
Listen to today’s “SportsDominion Show,” featuring interviews with “Hokie Nation: A Team, A Town and the Best Darned Fans in College Football” producers Sean Kotz and Chris Valluzzo. Show Length: 23:20.
I have to say, I hated every minute of the movie “Hokie Nation: A Team, A Town and the Best Darned Fans in College Football.”
I mean, seriously.
Yeah, I know, I get it. Virginia Tech football fans travel well. Some of them buy season tickets to UVa. football just so they can be in the stadium for the big game.
And they even show up at UVa. bowl games just to boo us.
I gave myself away there.
I’m a University of Virginia alum. Which means I don’t think it to be cute to jingle keys on third down because of the notion that third down is a “key play.”
And I happen to be a Metallica fan, and am bothered very much by how Hokie Nation has appropriated use of “Enter Sandman” as if the Marching Virginians conceived the tune.
I’m freely admitting that I was uncomfortable during the movie “Hokie Nation” because it occurs to me that this probably means that the film’s producers must have done something right.
Sean Kotz and Chris Valluzzo had been talking about starting a film-production company for years. They finally decided to make a go of it a couple of years ago, and upon making that call, naturally began thinking aloud about what their first project would be.
“We live down here in the Blacksburg area. And you can’t drive two seconds down the road without seeing a Hokie bumper sticker or seeing people with their Hokie shirts on. All year long. It never stops. So I was literally driving down the road, and Chris and I were saying, OK, we need a big first project. What’s it going to be? Well, this is obvious,” Kotz said.
And so it was that the work on the film got under way. Kotz and Valluzzo traveled up and down the East Coast for the better part of two years – spending time at Lane Stadium on Thursdays and Saturdays and at a number of Virginia Tech road games and bowl games in addition to meeting with fans and former players and coaches and others along the way.
They ended up with dozens of hours of interviews that they later had to edit down for use in the movie.
“We started out just putting the word out to fans and stuff like that. And through the fans, the word of mouth started to grow, and we started to get former players, and then working with the athletics department, we were able to get some of the coaches, Frank Beamer and Bud Foster and the like. And we just pushed forward with that,” Valluzzo said.
“It really was a word-of-mouth kind of thing as far as people hearing about the project to the point that our first day of shooting on location in the parking lots at Lane Stadium, people were, like, Hey, those are the ‘Hokie Movie’ guys. So people knew about us before we even showed up. Which I think shows how close this Hokie Nation is, and how when something interesting and new is out there, it tends to kind of spread,” Valluzzo said.
The movie is a living history of the Virginia Tech football culture – dating back to the days that aren’t exactly fondly remembered by even the long-time Hokie fans who want it to be remembered anyway.
“The one thing that I got early on was from folks who had been sitting in Lane Stadium since 1979, 1971, 1965. And week in, week out. They wanted to make sure that we didn’t just talk about the national-championship team in ’99-2000 and all the great years after that. They wanted to make sure that we covered all the fans, the fans who had been there all along,” Valluzzo said.
One interview along those lines stood out for Valluzzo.
“One fellow, Don Huffman, he’s a really great guy. He has not missed a home football game in 40 years. And to me, that speaks volumes. The fact that this guy is buying season tickets in the ’60s when Tech was not even in a conference really surprised me,” Valluzzo said.
Another fan interview was Kotz’ most memorable. April Shay told the duo her story about having had open-heart surgery at the Duke University Medical Center. “And as soon as her recovery was under way, and she felt strong enough to leave, the first thing she did was go see the Hokies play Duke down there. And she literally could barely make it to the stands. But according to her, as soon as she got there, she stood there with the Hokie crowd, the whole day she stayed up. That was a neat interview,” Kotz said.
“A lot of them were fun because we were kind of on the fly,” Kotz said. “We were running from one place to another, and we didn’t know who we’d get sometimes. We got Shayne Graham, for instance, because we were interviewing Mike Stevens, the Roanoke reporter for Channel 7. He said, Would you like Shayne Graham? Chris and I looked at each other and said, Are you kidding? Of course we want Shayne Graham. One of the most important plays ever in Tech football was that kick against West Virginia. He just happened to be in Pulaski that night. He happened to be at his old high school. We had just done literally a whole day of filming, so we raced down there and got him,” Kotz said.
So there is that mix in the film – between fans and fandom. Valluzzo isn’t ashamed to list among his highlights from the work on the documentary the day that he and Kotz met Tech legend Bruce Smith.
“Sitting across a conference-room table in Newport News and talking with Bruce Smith, I thought to myself, I never in my wildest dreams two years ago when we started this project thought that I’d be talking with Bruce Smith. We drove five hours one way to talk to him for 30 minutes and then drove five hours back. But it was definitely worth it,” Valluzzo said.
A note at the beginning of the movie informs viewers that Kotz and Valluzzo began editing “Hokie Nation” on April 14, 2007. Two days later, a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus claimed the lives of 33 Tech students and faculty members.
“I remember sitting in front of the computer on April 14 and turning to Sean and saying, Oh, my gosh, we’re going to actually start editing this thing. We had spent almost a month getting all the footage into the computer to prep for editing. And obviously, the events unfolded just a couple of days later, and just put the brakes on the project, for so many reasons other than just trying to figure out what to do with that event and how it affected the Hokie Nation,” Valluzzo said.
The two talked about what to do with their movie in the wake of the shootings.
“It was something that we really struggled with as filmmakers. We got a lot of filmmaker friends from outside the area that said, This is a really big part of the story, and that kind of thing,” Valluzzo said.
In the end, the filmmakers decided to forge ahead with their project as-is, so to speak.
“While it was a tragic event, and a very historical event in the history of Virginia Tech, we felt that our original vision of the film was to let Hokie fans kind of define themselves and help define the Hokie Nation. And we felt that including April 16th in this documentary – I don’t think we wanted the actions of one person to define what the Hokie Nation was. We wanted the hundreds of Hokies that we spoke to and the dozens of players and coaches that we spoke to, we wanted those people to be the voice of Hokie Nation,” Valluzzo said.
“What the nation saw with the community getting together, and the friendship and camaraderie and just the pure passion for standing together as Hokies, those are things that we had been filming for 18 months prior to April 16th. And we just felt that what we had in the can was what we wanted to represent,” Valluzzo said.
“Unfortunately, April 16th proved that. Obviously, we wish we didn’t have to have that kind of event to prove what we were shooting on film was something that was already occurring. But the Hokie Nation spirit is alive and well, and I think the nation saw that shortly after April 16,” Valluzzo said.
I didn’t really hate the movie.
OK, maybe …
Well, I did have to decompress after watching it. So I went to the message board at TheSabre.com and scanned the pages for anything derogatory about Virginia Tech that I could find.
And then I had to admit something to myself. There’s some jealousy involved. Because it hasn’t been that long since the UVa. and Virginia Tech football programs were on something of an even keel.
“If you’re a football fan, and you pay attention to what happens, you saw the evolution of a club at a time when it was hard to evolve,” Kotz said. “They got good at just the right time – with the explosion of ESPN and entrance into the Big East. And for the fans, it was almost like we were waiting for it. And the moment that we started to get that recognition, boy, we just ate it up. And there was no turning back.”
Jealousy, then, was rearing its head as I watched the closing credits. Not to mention not a small amount of envy.
“We’re not joking when we say the best darned fans in college football. I mean, there’s a lot of great fans. I won’t say that there aren’t comparable groups. But this group travels. This group loves its team. Win or lose, we’re going to be there,” Kotz said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.