no avatar

Athletics will help to heal

BLAIR KERKHOFF • Apr 18, 2007 at 12:33 PM

Among the great pleasures of following college sports is watching a school revel in a moment of unaccustomed glory.

You haven't seen fans party like those of a Final Four newcomer or a football championship game first-timer.

So it was during the first few days of the millennium in New Orleans, where Virginia Tech followers owned Bourbon Street right up to kickoff of the national championship game in the Sugar Bowl.

Every school should experience those feelings, and it's the pride and sheer joy of such an uplifting occasion that Virginia Tech followers should summon now.

The grisly cable news headlines told it all as Monday unfolded.

"Massacre at Virginia Tech"

"Deadliest U.S. shooting"

Scenes of ambulance lights flashing on a quiet campus road, police running, trembling students trying to describe what they heard or saw at the dormitory and classroom is the stuff of fiction.

Monday, it was too real in Blacksburg, where my wife attended graduate school and we lived in the mid-1980s. Backdrops for those scenes rang familiar. The distinctive classroom buildings made from limestone, Cassell Coliseum, where the basketball teams play, the administration building at Burress Hall, the places we passed daily.

What separates Tech from other universities is the nickname - Hokies (it's a cheer) - and its engineering school, consistently rated among the nation's top undergraduate programs.

And there's the setting. The campus sits on a plateau between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Waterfalls, the Appalachian Trail for hikers and the Blue Ridge Parkway are nearby. It's a fall foliage paradise.

Tech has always basked in natural wonder. It didn't get consistent championship-level football until a former Hokies star, coach Frank Beamer, arrived - and even then it took awhile. His first two teams, the last ones I covered while working in Roanoke, went a combined 5-17. Surely, this young coach was overmatched and would soon return to the comfort of a lower division.

But he and Tech stuck with each other through the bad times with an amazing payoff. Football found its way from independent status to the Big East and now the Atlantic Coast Conference, where it has thrived. Tech regularly produces NFL players, none greater than the freshman quarterback who led the Hokies into battle against Florida State in the Superdome, Michael Vick.

The Hokies lost that night in a thrilling game. The Seminoles jumped ahead early, and Tech roared back to take the lead, only to lose in the fourth quarter. And the fans spilled back out onto Bourbon Street to celebrate just being there.

Before kickoff, I found several old friends, Tech fans who wore that "Can you believe this is happening to us?" expression. I told them they had a kindred football spirit in the Midwest in Kansas State.

The success has continued with regular bowl appearances, and the men's basketball team perked up with a rare double this season - victories at North Carolina and Duke. Until Monday morning, that's how those who follow sports remembered Tech this year.

How will we look at Virginia Tech now? With the same grief and confusion with which we considered the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy and the Louisiana hurricanes that changed lives and left scars.

Sports played a role in the healing then, and it will again. In the fall, when football season arrives, tens of thousands of Tech students and alumni will gather at Lane Stadium and feel the pull of a school's extended family. It works in times of joy and sorrow.

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos