Eight years since the mass murder at Virginia Tech.
The horror remains unimaginable and always will be so. My good friend and former sports writing colleague Kyle Tucker and I were e-mailing some memories today about that terrible time and the role Hokies football played toward healing when it returned 4 1/2 months later; Kyle was decamped in Blacksburg then as a world-class beat writer, as you may know.
It moved me to look up the things he and I wrote from that first emotional game Virginia Tech played that early September, 2007 afternoon when Hokies fans filled Lane Stadium to weep and watch and reflect.
I pulled the front-page story I was asked to do that day from the newspaper archives. I paste it here in memory:
A Tech tradition. Memories of ‘the 32.’ Closer to healing.
BLACKSBURG | A voice hung in the air of Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium on Saturday. The song it sang was simple, clear and haunting. It accompanied a photo montage on the video board, heralding the blessed return of football to this proud college-football town. Healing was in the words. Hope was at its heart.
Walk humbly son
Walk humbly now
And cherish every step
For a life well spent
On this earth we’re lent
Will be marked by the void you have left …
Moments earlier, the 66,233 people who filled the stadium had raised their voices in a spontaneous pre game cheer – for the Hokies’ opponent, East Carolina University.
“Thank you … Pirates!” “Thank you … Pirates!”
Usually, that four-syllable cadence is reserved for a rousing chant that shakes Lane’s walls: “Let’s go … Hokies!”
Then again, usually the visiting school doesn’t present a $100,000 check to its host at midfield right before kickoff.
East Carolina’s donation to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund was one of many signs of something dramatic, something different on an overcast afternoon.
Two orange ribbons with a maroon “VT” decorated the playing field. A flyover of two Air Force jets followed the national anthem and a moment of silence. The teams simultaneously ran into the stadium, a departure from the Hokies’ usual solo entrance to a heavy-metal soundtrack. Hokie fans had been asked by Tech’s administration not to boo the Pirates.
Four-and-a-half months after 32 people were killed on campus in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Virginia Tech’s community gathered to weep and comfort but, yes, to celebrate its familial bond.
Normally, the opening of football season is one of the most-anticipated events at Virginia Tech. Normalcy, though, really wasn’t in Saturday’s equation, even as the ninth-ranked Hokies defeated East Carolina 17-7.
It was a step, however. Welcome and eagerly awaited.
“I think that’s going to be a continuous process,” head coach Frank Beamer said. “I think as long as you’re Virginia Tech, I think you’re probably going to remember April 16 every day. I think that’s just part of it, and let’s continue to move on.”
Walk humbly, son
And store your pride
When you need strength later on
For your life’s work will be judged if earth
Is saddened when you have gone …
“We heard that song playing when we walked into the tunnel,” Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon said. “I don’t know what it was. But the whole stadium seemed to be silent. That was definitely a weird feeling.”
That kept with the day’s somber tone, the surreal sense that Virginia Tech student Milford John-Williams tried to explain as he lingered near ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” telecast, which originated across from the stadium.
“This is just a mixing bowl of emotions,” said John-Williams, a senior economics major from Woodbridge . “I don’t know that words can really describe it.”
Mingling nearby, Tech graduate Terry Saylor worried how that emotion would affect her team. It will be much this way all season; media will continue to spotlight the Hokies’ ability to rally their “Nation.”
Tributes and spirit-fund checks will continue to flow from opposing schools, even as the Hokies pursue the national-championship chance many experts believe is within their reach.
“I think the players could be feeling an emotional pressure to have a successful season,” said Saylor, Class of ’77, who added that she and her husband, Greg, were “compelled” to attend the game from Atlanta.
“I don’t think you can ever put it behind you completely,” Greg Saylor said. “I’d just as soon it be played down, though. You’ve got football players trying to do their best. You can’t wallow in it continually. But for the moment, this is our reality.”
And perhaps focus was hard to find amid the buildup. The Hokies’ performance was disjointed; they struggled to run the ball, gaining only 33 rushing yards against a team they were favored to beat by four touchdowns.
They scored just one offensive touchdown – 10 points came on a field goal and an interception return. Tech fumbled the ball away twice, and Glennon threw an interception on the Hokies’ first play of the game.
“It’s quite obvious we better be better next week,” said Beamer, whose team plays at second-ranked Louisiana State next Saturday night.
Walk humbly, son
Walk humbly, now
And forget not where you are from
Will you walk humbly, son?
When it was over, Beamer said Tech’s seniors will place the game ball at the memorial at the on-campus Drillfield, where 32 stones honor those killed in the massacre.
Running back Branden Ore said the Hokies know they’ll play for “the 32” all season. And Glennon hoped the Hokies were “mentally tough enough” to deal with the responsibility they have shouldered.
“Once the whistle’s blown, we have to put that out of our heads and go out and play football and do our assignments,” Glennon said. “Obviously we didn’t do that today, because we came out flat, especially on offense.”
Still, a football season is always a hard and challenging walk. But along their new, uncharted road, these Hokies will walk accompanied like never before.
(Note: That ’07 season, Tech went 11-3 overall, 7-1 in the ACC and won the Coastal Division as well as the ACC championship game.)