Game day brings tears, cheers to Virginia Tech community

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech football fans cried, then cheered in Saturday's opener against East Carolina at Lane Stadium.

They left the stadium breathing a sigh of relief.

The first major sporting event at Virginia Tech since the horrific campus massacre of April 16 began with an emotional pregame ceremony honoring the 32 victims, their families and the wounded in what was the worst school shooting spree in U.S. history.

The game ended with Virginia Tech beating the Pirates 17-7 in a game that was closer than most expected. After the Hokies took an early 3-0 lead in the first quarter, they managed little on offense. Virginia Tech trailed 7-3 and didn't regain the lead until cornerback Victor Harris returned an interception for a touchdown late in the first half.

The Hokies didn't score an offensive touchdown until late in the fourth quarter, when tight end Sam Wheeler caught a 21-yard touchdown from quarterback Sean Glennon to make it 17-7.

"I thought our fans and the Hokie Nation did their part," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "I thought we played hard, but sometimes we didn't play well."

The No. 9 Hokies will have to play much better next Saturday night when they face No. 2 LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

Virginia Tech managed only 33 rushing yards on 31 attempts, and Glennon's first pass on the Hokies' first offensive play was intercepted. Glennon was sacked four times and lost a fumble playing behind a revamped offensive line.

Virginia Tech's vaunted defense -- which led the country in total defense, pass defense and scoring defense last season -- even had problems stopping East Carolina's option offense. Pirates coach Skip Holtz used three quarterbacks after expected starter Rob Kass was suspended after his arrest and DWI charge last weekend. Virginia Tech outgained the Pirates only 278 yards to 271.

"It's always good to get that first game out of the way," senior linebacker Xavier Adibi said. "We weren't distracted too much. We played really hard. The first game, it's something you expect. Your first game, you're not going to come out and be on cue and be on your best game."

But at least it was a game on a campus that needed a distraction from the horror that transpired on that cold, blustery April morning.

"It was emotional, like I thought it would be," said Cheryl Beamer, the coach's wife. "You could look around the stadium and see people crying. You think you've cried the last time, but then something happens to trigger it again."

There was plenty to trigger emotions on Saturday. The morning started with anticipation and excitement for the season opener. Fans, students and alumni filled the parking lots and grass fields surrounding Lane Stadium several hours before the noon kickoff. Fans tailgated and packed the lacrosse field to watch ESPN's "College GameDay" show.

"I think everybody was excited," Frank Beamer said. "To me, it was kind of a different day. It was something you've waited so long for and you just can't wait for it to get here. I think that's the way it was for our fans and the players."

Bob Hopkins, a Virginia Tech fan from nearby Christiansburg, sat in his van in a parking lot adjacent to Lane Stadium before the game. It was no ordinary van. It was a 1973 VW bus painted black. Oh, and there's a big wooden handle on the roof. Just like the Virginia Tech defense's famous lunch pail. In fact, Hopkins painted the van so it would look just like the lunch pail. It even has the Virginia Tech logo and "Win" painted in orange letters on the side.

Hopkins hatched the idea as a way to help Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster raise money for scholarships for students at local high schools. Hopkins sells souvenir lunch pails, bumper stickers and car decals.

"It's unbelievable," Hopkins said of returning to Lane Stadium. "Everybody is expecting a big show. Obviously, everybody will remember what happened. It will be very emotional. Hopefully, it will provide some closure as well. We're ready to move on."

Indeed, it was football time again at Virginia Tech. About an hour before kickoff, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine walked through a parking lot shaking hands with Hokie fans.
About the same time, the tuba section from the Marching Virginians band weaved through the parking lot entertaining tailgaters.

"It's back to normalcy," said Andrew Pryor, a Tech senior from South Hampton, Pa., and a tuba player in the band. "It's something just to go back in there and do what we do."

First, though, the Hokies had to remember those they lost. Fans filled more than 66,000 seats in Lane Stadium an hour before kickoff for an emotional pregame ceremony to honor the victims, their families and the wounded. With 20 minutes to go before kickoff, the Corps of Cadets' Highty-Tighties band marched onto the field, followed by the Corps of Cadets. The Marching Virginians band -- 330 strong -- followed them onto the field, and the bands played together.

The public address announcer told the crowd, "Hokie Spirit is alive and strong. … We will never forget and will always honor the memory of those who were taken from us too soon and those who are still recovering."

After a moment of silence and the national anthem, a squadron of four F-15 Eagle fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in eastern Virginia flew over the stadium in the missing man formation.

The most emotional moment came during a presentation shown on the video screen of the scoreboard. It was a montage of photographs of painful scenes from the days after the shooting, but ended with Virginia Tech professor and poet Nikki Giovanni once again saying the words that have become the school's motto during its recovery: "We will prevail! We will prevail! We will prevail! We are Virginia Tech!"

Hokies cheerleaders then released 32 big orange balloons into the cloudy sky above Lane Stadium. The teams ran onto the field together, a gesture of thanks to the Pirates for their donation of $100,000 to the Hokie Spirit Memorial fund.

Afterward, of course, Metallica's "Enter Sandman" was blaring over the stadium's speakers, and the game was on.

Things finally seemed normal in Blacksburg again.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.