Story by Chris Graham
Imagine, Carlton Powell says, a volcano about the erupt.
“That’s how it’s going to be inside Lane Stadium,” said Powell, a senior defensive tackle at Virginia Tech, for Saturday’s 2007 season opener pitting the Hokies against East Carolina – the first football game at the school since the tragic events of April 16 that left 33 students and faculty members dead in a mass shooting that gripped the world.
The game will draw a national audience – ESPN is broadcasting the noon kickoff, and the network’s “GameDay” crew will be on hand to cover the pregame ceremonies that will honor shooting victims in front of what is expected to be an emotional 65,000-plus.
“I don’t think anybody from Virginia Tech gets up in the morning and doesn’t think about what happened on our campus. It’s just something that’s there,” coach and Hokie Nation icon Frank Beamer said.
“But I think that everybody’s looking for – and I felt this the week after the tragedies – I think Tech people just want to get together and be with each other and tell them they care about each other and hug each other. And I think it’s just magnified now when 65,000 people get into the stadium together – I think there will be a closeness there that’s probably never been there before, even a greater tightness,” Beamer said.
And it will be more than the 65,000 people in Blacksburg who will be sharing in the emotions of the day. The Hokies have become something of a new America’s Team in the wake of the shootings – with tributes across college football to the New York Yankees to fans in Scotland cheering on Virginia Tech golfer Drew Weaver with a “Let’s Go Hokies!” chant during the recent British Amateur.
No pressure there. Right?
“Everyone understands that when ‘GameDay’ decided to come out for the opening ballgame, that really made a statement about how big this is, and how much of the country is looking at it,” Beamer said.
“I believe that more people will be knowledgeable about Virginia Tech, more people will be looking at the score, more people will watch us when we’re on TV, and more people will be pulling for Virginia Tech. But I think it gets back to one thing that we have to understand – that while that’s going on, the only thing that we can do to effect the situation is to prepare well and play well and play as hard as you can, and that we affect this other, but the way we can affect it in a positive way is to go out there and prepare well and play well,” Beamer said.
On paper, the ECU game is a classic mismatch – the Hokies are favored by 27, and the Pirates will have to play without starting quarterback Rob Kass, who was suspended this week after being arrested and charged with driving while impaired over the weekend.
“For us as a football team, we understand that it’s big – and you know the saying, the bigger it gets, the smaller you think,” Beamer said.
“I mean, it’s big – but we’d better think about getting better each day and working to improve how we are as a football team and what can I do today to get better and get ready to play that opening football game,” Beamer said. “Because when it’s kicked off, the only thing that’s going to matter at that point is how well we can play – and how we can execute. That’s the key thing for us – is preparing to play a really good football team in East Carolina and being ready to play well ourselves.”
That said, it will be hard for anyone in Lane Stadium on Saturday – fans, Coach Beamer, his players, even the ECU contingent in attendance – to put what happened four months and change ago to the back of their minds.
“I was just getting out of position meetings from that morning,” Powell said. “We had meetings at 6 o’clock, and I got out at 7:10. I was actually in the parking lot from West A.J. when the first shooting happened, and I saw all the police cars and ambulances leaving out of the parking lot. I wasn’t aware of what was going on – until I got back to my apartment and turned the news on and saw everything that was going on, and immediately started calling everybody and making sure that everybody that I knew was OK.”
“I was there for two or three days after it happened, and just watching the news trucks pull in and more students started to leave. It was crazy,” said senior offensive lineman Duane Brown, who lost classmates in the attacks.
“The day it happened, it was surreal, and you didn’t really get the full effect of things until the next day, when it really hit me that all those people had lost their lives, and that it happened here – because you don’t really hear of anything going on in a negative way in Blacksburg. So for that to happen, it was just shocking,” Brown said.
“You want to put it behind you, but it’s a historic moment in U.S. history,” Brown said. “I already know that this is going to be something that goes on throughout the season – because when you think of Virginia Tech, football is probably the most popular sport that we have there. So everyone wants to know what’s going to happen with us and how we’re affected by it. So we’re prepared.”
“We’re all playing for all of them,” Powell said of the victims of the tragedy.
“It’s sad for such a tragedy to bring this kind of attention to our school, but at the same time, we’re taking it and embracing it, and we want to make everyone proud,” Powell said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The New Dominion.