Diehard Hokie Expecting a Teary-Eyed Sandman

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On the weekend after Virginia Tech’s Thursday night win over Georgia Tech,
punter Brian Saunders went to a wedding near his home in Roseland, Va. The
reception was in full dance-floor swing when someone in the party whispered to
the deejay. Moments later, the opening chords of Enter Sandman boomed from the
speakers.

It wasn’t planned, but the numerous Hokies in attendance instinctively formed
two lines and started jumping up and down. What else could Saunders do?
Grinning, he pretended to emerge from Avery Tunnel and he ran between them,
slapping hands.

He didn’t mean to steal the spotlight. But Saunders is quietly having one of
the greatest years for a punter in Tech history, and it’s a big deal to his
family and friends.

“JUST LIKE THEM”

Think about something you want more than anything in the world. For Saunders,
it meant playing football for Virginia Tech. And in this often-hard life, it’s
reason enough to celebrate when someone realizes a dream.

Saunders can’t recall his first Hokie game because he was too young to even
walk. His father, Massie, took him in a baby carrier slung over his shoulders.
He does remember staying at the team hotel for the 1995 Sugar Bowl and seeing
quarterback Jim Druckenmiller in the indoor pool. Druckenmiller picked him up
and tossed him in the air and he landed in the water with a splash.

Call it his Hokie baptism.

When he grew older, Saunders would sit with his family up in Section 18, row
triple-T or thereabouts, watching Michael Vick and Corey Moore. And he thought,
“One day I want to run out of the tunnel just like them.”

HOW A DREAM CAME TRUE

Saunders didn’t begin playing football until his freshman year at Nelson
County High, but he still earned all-state honors as a senior punter. He wasn’t
good enough to land a Division I scholarship offer, but Emory & Henry badly
wanted him to play both football (quarterback) and baseball. Virginia Tech
hadn’t shown much interest in him as a walk-on, so he was ready to turn in the
E&H paperwork to meet the school’s deadline.

“You sure?” Massie said.

Brian said yes.

That afternoon, the plan suddenly changed. Tech assistant coach Billy Hite
arrived at Nelson County High and ran into Saunders in the hallway.

The two huddled in the principal’s office, where Hite offered him a chance to
walk on.

“He was shocked,” Hite says.

Saunders phoned his father.

“Have you mailed that paperwork yet, Dad?” he asked.

“No. Why?” he asked.

“You’ll never guess who came to school today.”

That was a night to celebrate in the Saunders household. Massie is the oldest
of seven brothers, all Hokie graduates. (Massie lived on “The Pit” in
Pritchard during his freshman year of 1976-77, and remembers Coke vending
machine being tossed from a seventh-floor window during exam week. “It made
a tremendous noise,” he says.)

Massie’s father, Paul, graduated in 1954 and was a past president of the
Alumni Association and served on the agriculture alumni board of directors, the
College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Leadership Council, the Regional
Campaign Committee, the Virginia Tech Foundation Board and the Class of 1954
Reunion Committee.  His wife, Tatum, attended the University of Virginia.
“But,” Massie says, “She bleeds orange and maroon too.”

Paul Saunders enrolled at Tech in 1950, a time of “lean pickin’s”
for the football program. He didn’t play varsity sports, so the combined success
of the team and his grandson feels like a blessed gift. “We’re very proud
of Brian,” Paul says. “That’s all I can say. I wish I could say more,
but I get emotional just talking about it.”

GET OFF THAT BOAT!

Like the rest of the walk-ons, Saunders was to report to campus for the first
day of classes. To celebrate Brian’s matriculation, Massie took the family on a
chartered fishing trip to the Chesapeake Bay in late July. It was a Saturday and
they had been on the water for about an hour when Massie’s cell phone rang.

It was Billy Hite, asking for Brian.

Then the phone went dead.

Massie quickly returned Hite’s call.

Out on the water, the cell phone reception was poor. But Massie did make out
a few of Hite’s words before the call dropped again: “We need Brian
now.” Massie turned to the ship’s captain and asked permission to use his
phone.

Hite told them there had been an injury to Tech’s scout team quarterback, and
the Hokies needed Brian to take his place. Now. “He was ready to jump off
the boat and swim to shore,” Massie says. They cut the trip short and had
Brian in Blacksburg by 2 p.m. the next day. That afternoon he was wearing maroon
and white, going against the first-team defense.

As a true freshman, he ran the scout team and signaled plays from the
sideline. The family will never forget the first time they saw him in uniform:
Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006 against No. 10 Clemson, a 24-7 Tech win.

“I don’t think I even got a good look at him,” says his mother,
Joyce Saunders. “My eyes were too blurred with tears.”

Standing in Avery Tunnel surrounded by teammates in full pads and wearing the
jersey, Saunders felt chills when he touched the Hokiestone mounted over the
field exit. “Not just on my arms and down my back,” he says.
“Over my entire body.”

But the dream was incomplete. To make it whole, he needed to play.

HE WAITED FOUR YEARS …

Coach Frank Beamer put Saunders on scholarship his senior year, sparking
another household celebration. His first start would come at FedEx Field before
nearly 87,000 fans and a huge ESPN television audience.

After four years of working the scout team and backing up Brent Bowden, his
time had come, on the biggest stage possible. So yeah, he was nervous. Massie
and Joyce were apprehensive, too. All week neighbors had come up to Joyce and
gave her their support, but that just made her more anxious. When Massie and
Joyce arrived inside FedEx to watch their son warm up, the mother made eye
contact with her son.

“I’m OK, Mom,” he said.

His nervousness had passed when lined up to receive the first snap of his
career. “Let’s make it happen,” he thought to himself now. It was just
a punt, something he had done in practice thousands of times before.

But as soon as Colin Carroll snapped the ball, Saunders saw Boise State’s
Austin Pettis charge in from the right, unblocked. “I need to speed this
up,” Saunders thought. As soon as he kicked it, he heard the sound a punter
fears most: BUH-THUMP.

He looked frantically for the blocked punt, which Boise recovered. “I
should’ve backed up,” he thought as he came off the field.

The next day he asked coach Beamer, “What would you have done in that
situation?”

“It’s all up to you, Saunders,” he said. “You’re the one on
the field. You have to make that decision.”

SECOND-BEST EVER … SO FAR

Saunders would not have a kick blocked again. He’s boomed them for a 44.8
average, second in Tech history only to Jimmy Kibble’s 45.1 average in 1997.
He’s also been the holder for placekicker Chris Hazley, who has converted a
school-record 18 consecutive field goals. Saunders’ success thrills Robbie
Colley, Tech’s starting punter from 1992-94 (averaging 39.5 yards). He’s been
working with Brian the past six summers, after meeting Massie during a Hokie
Club barbecue in Amherst.

Colley always emphasized the importance of relaxing. He told Saunders to take
a deep breath and think about a song to clear his head. “I don’t pay
attention to the song thing,” Saunders says, “It never clicked for me.
But I do take a deep breath.”

“Once you’re relaxed, it’s a matter of keeping your shoulder square and
making solid contact,” Colley says. “Brian likes to hunt, so I told
him, ‘Imagine being in that tree stand and getting a deer in your crosshairs.
Take aim and fire away.”

IT WILL BE A WET SATURDAY

If history holds true, Saunders will likely get a training camp shot in the
NFL. And if that happens, great. But he’ll always have those five years in
Blacksburg.

“Every time we see him run out there in the Virginia Tech uniform, it’s
hard not to cry,” Joyce says. “This is what he always wanted to do.
It’s hard to describe. My heart is just so full of joy for him, just knowing my
child is living the dream he always wanted.”

Saturday, he’ll run out of Avery Tunnel again as part of the seniors tribute.
And this time his family will be at midfield waiting for him. “It’s going
to give me chills,” Saunders says. “This has been the experience of a
lifetime. I wish I could put it in slow motion and just take it all in for the
last time.

“It will be a breakdown moment, I can guarantee that.”

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