BLACKSBURG, Va. -- A battered lunch pail has long been the trademark of Virginia Tech's rough-and-tough defense.
It has symbolized the blue-collar approach the Hokies accepted long ago, as they climbed their way from a woebegone program to one of the most consistent teams in college football. It also has represented the work ethic and pride of this working class community at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"What the lunch pail is about is going out and earning success and deserving victory, whatever it is, whether it's on the field or off the field," said Bud Foster, who started the lunch pail tradition after he was named Virginia Tech's defensive coordinator in 1995.
Beginning Saturday, the Virginia Tech lunch pail will mean so much more. In the past, Foster included the defense's mission statement, keys to success and goals in the lunch pail. Over time, Hokie players collected turf from playing fields after road victories and deposited blades of grass in the box.
But nothing has been as precious or significant as its contents on Saturday.
When the lunch pail is carried into Lane Stadium before Saturday's home opener against East Carolina (ESPN, noon ET), it will have the names of the 32 victims of the horrific April 16 campus shooting. The names are listed on a laminated card, with a maroon ribbon in the middle. Underneath the victims' names is the motto Hokie Nation has embraced as it tries to recover from the worst school shooting spree in U.S. history: "We will remember. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech."
"We're a part of this campus, and obviously those people were a part of this campus and this Hokie Nation, and we want to honor them," Foster said. "Maybe they were all football fans. I kind of read the bios of the kids and the professors and the people who went to the hospital [after the shooting]. The first thing they wanted to talk about [at the hospital] was spring ball rather than how their wounds were doing."
In the past, Foster awarded the lunch pail to the team's defensive MVP from the previous week's game. Two years ago, defensive end Darryl Tapp staked claim to the pail and never gave it back. Foster said Tapp wasn't going to surrender the pail until someone else outworked him for it. No one ever did. Tapp even kept the pail with him after he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.
Foster had no difficulty in finding players deserving of the honor last season. Virginia Tech led Division I-A in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense in 2006.
Foster, who grew up in the coal mining areas of Illinois, said miners and steel workers have donated pails to him in the past. A young girl recently mailed him a pail decorated in stars and stripes. This season, they'll carry the same brown pail they used a year ago. "Team" is painted on the left side of the dented box; "VT" is painted on the right. "Win" is painted on the front.
And inside the pail is a reminder of one of the darkest days in American history and a moment that changed Virginia Tech forever.
"I think it taught us tomorrow is never guaranteed," Foster said. "You can't take anything for granted. These people, something was taken away from them and their families."
I think it taught us tomorrow is never guaranteed. You can't take anything for granted. These people, something was taken away from them and their families.
The Hokies will try to carry on their memory.
"To have those names in there is another motivation for us to accomplish what we need to do this season," linebacker Vince Hall said.
Defensive end Orion Martin took possession of the lunch pail during preseason camp. He walked into the team's locker room one day earlier this month and it was sitting in his locker. Defensive end Chris Ellis had placed it there to let Martin know he appreciated his hard work and effort.
"[The shooting] was a horrible tragedy," Martin said. "To have those names in there, it makes it even more of an honor to have the lunch pail."
Foster said he hasn't decided whether senior linebacker Xavier Adibi or Martin will have the honor of carrying the pail onto the field Saturday.
More than any other player, Martin epitomizes the characteristics of the Hokie Nation. He overcame long odds to play at Virginia Tech and has worked hard for every opportunity.
Martin wasn't recruited after a stellar career at George Washington High School in Martinsville, Va. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound junior was considered too small and too slow to play big-time college football. He had one offer from a Division III school, but instead enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia in the fall of 2004.
Even after playing at Hargrave, Martin had few college choices. He enrolled at Norfolk State, a Division I-AA school, the next spring and spent one semester there. When the Hokies began recruiting his younger brother, Cam Martin, to play linebacker, Martin transferred to Virginia Tech and walked on to the football team. The brothers will each be in Virginia Tech's starting lineup against the Pirates.
"I thought if I didn't give it a shot, I'd regret it the rest of my life," Orion Martin said.
And now each of the Hokies know how fragile life really is.
"We're going to keep doing what we do," Foster said. "Obviously, the victims were part of the Hokie Nation. They were a part of the program when they were in the stands.
Now, they're going to be a part of it in spirit."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.