In the realest sense, sports are trivial. In the grand scheme of things, the result of the biggest college football game of the season doesn’t really have an impact on the world.
However, there are certain events in which we need sports to bring us together. We need those traditions, those players, those fight songs to help us rise from the ashes.
The tragic shooting deaths of 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 was one of those events. After so much heartbreak, so much sorrow and so much loss, the university, the town of Blacksburg and the greater Virginia Tech community needed something to lift them up.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, they had a guy like Frank Beamer.
Beamer, along with distinguished professor Nikki Giovanni, served as beacons of light for the university, the town and the greater Virginia Tech community. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Beamer found himself walking around the university regularly, talking with students, faculty and staff.
“I felt like people needed to see someone that they knew, maybe someone that they had seen before, and for that person to be able to convince them that everything was going to be okay, that we’re going to come through this okay,” Beamer said.
Beamer recalls one time while walking with long time friend John Ballein, the former Associate Athletic Director for Football Operations and current Senior Associate Athletics Director, when the two encountered a female student on campus.
“You could see tears in her eyes,” Beamer said. “We talked with her for a few minutes and I think it made her feel better. That was kind of my purpose. I loved Virginia Tech too much, and this one sick individual wasn’t going to define who we are.”
Little did he know at the time, but Beamer’s biggest contribution to bringing the university back together would come roughly four and half months later, when the Hokies’ football team took the field to open their 2007 season vs. East Carolina.
It was a grand occasion. ESPN’s College GameDay once again returned to Blacksburg, and brought to light the suffering undergone by the university, but also how much Hokies around the world had looked forward to the game.
“This game gives people a chance to be together,” Beamer said on the set of College GameDay. “I think that’s the No. 1 issue right now with Tech people, that they just want to be together. They want to show that we are strong.”
Theresa Walsh, who was nearly shot on April 16 yet survived the ordeal, had similar thoughts.
“It’s going to be a great feeling, because you’re going to know not that we’re over this, by any means no one is over this, but that we’re moving on, that we’re getting through this all together as one big family,” Walsh said on the show.
From starting quarterback Sean Glennon’s perspective, the game was all about one thing — returning to a sense of normalcy.
“Normalcy — that’s the million dollar word right there,” Glennon said. “Everything was so unordinary, or not normal, for four or five months, that just getting back to regular Virginia Tech student and athlete life was nice, and something everyone was looking forward to.
“I think everyone was yearning for an escape.”
Lane Stadium is well-known for its stadium vibe and atmosphere. Virginia Tech fans have often been regarded among the best and loudest in the country, but on that day, September 1, 2007, the atmosphere wasn’t the same.
“Looking back on it, I don’t know really that either team wanted to play the game that day,” said Bill Roth, the longtime play-by-play radio announcer for Virginia Tech, who called the game that day. “That day in Lane Stadium, the three words ‘Let’s go Hokies’ meant something totally different. It was a ‘Let’s go Hokies’, but it didn’t necessarily mean the team. It was for everyone in the stands and everyone watching.”
“It was just a different feeling,” Glennon said. “We weren’t on the field for it, we were waiting in the tunnel and on the practice field, but I saw replays after of the balloons that were released for the 32 victims, and we saw survivors in the middle of the field. Hearts were heavy, but at the same time, I think it was time. People didn’t want to be sad anymore.”
Heading into the game, it would be understandable that Virginia Tech carried an extra burden. The No. 9 Hokies knew that they’d be expected to win.
“I was trying to keep things in perspective,” Glennon said. “There were people in the stadium that had gunshot wounds and people in the stadium whose family members had lost their lives, and I’m thinking all I have to do is go throw a football around. There shouldn’t have been, but at the same time there was a part of me that knew the whole country was watching this game.”
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they didn’t get off to the best of starts. After forcing a three and out on the Pirates’ first offensive series, Glennon was picked off.
“We had a trick play run,” Glennon said. “I was faking the handoff and then I was faking a reverse, and then I was supposed to throw it deep to Eddie Royal. They covered it, they didn’t fall for it, so it kind of went to hell. Before I was about to get sacked, after I saw Eddie wasn’t open, I tried to hit Justin Harper who was cutting across the middle. I didn’t see the linebacker that was out in front of him and he picked it off.
“As much as I wanted to bury a hole and climb in it, I also kind of smiled too. ‘Well, it can’t get any worse from here.’”
The Hokies continued to struggle offensively and with 14:23 left in the second quarter, East Carolina owned a 7-3 lead.
“I think sometimes you can want to do something too much, and you kind of get in your own way. Maybe there was a little bit of that,” Beamer said.
An anxious Tech crowd watched as East Carolina overmatched the Hokies’ offensive line. Tech could not run the ball, and it looked like the Pirates had a real chance to pull off the upset.
However, thanks a great punt from Brent Bowden in the second quarter, the Hokies finally had East Carolina pinned on their own 2-yard-line, right up against the North end zone. East Carolina quarterback Brett Clay, who started in place of the suspended Rob Kass, ran a play-action from his own end zone, and was picked off by Tech’s Macho Harris. Harris ran towards the pylon, leaping in the air to give Virginia Tech a 10-7 lead.
With the game still in reach in the fourth quarter, Glennon threw his first touchdown pass of the day to Sam Wheeler, effectively sealing the win for Tech.
“There definitely was a sense of relief, that we were going to get out of here with a win, that I wasn’t going to have to answer every question in the media about my first play interception,” Glennon said. “I had something good to talk about.”
Virginia Tech went on to prevail over East Carolina 17-7, but they prevailed on more than just the football field. The Hokies, the university and the greater Virginia Tech community had all taken a step towards healing. A step towards normalcy.
“It set the precedent that we can get back to being normal,” Glennon said. “School had already started, there was a new crop of freshmen there on campus and probably loving every minute of it. They weren’t there for what happened in the spring. Sports were back in play… I think that football game said, ‘Okay, we got that out of the way, now we can go back to being college students and athletes, and residents of the town, and move on. Never forgetting, but not letting it get in the way of enjoying our lives.”
“When we’re in that stadium, everybody comes together and goes in one direction,” Beamer said. “Whether you’re in academics, alumni, students, fans, band members or whatever, everybody is together, and I think that is what we all needed at that time.”
“I think Virginia Tech attracts a certain kind of student to begin with,” Roth said. “Those who value the community feeling of what I always call ‘College Town USA’, I think for those of us who really value that, the reason that we do is because we have each other’s backs. We understand what it means and so when there is tragedy, and we’re overcome by grief, which we all were, we were there for each other. Everyone else in the country got to see that.”
Fast forward to the present. Virginia Tech seems to have come a long way from that tragic day, but has never forgotten those 32 lives. To this day, on midnight of April 16, thousands gather outside of Burruss Hall, right in front of the April 16 Memorial. These Hokies gather not to weep, not to grieve, but to remember and celebrate those lives who are no longer with us.
“That’s 32 families that didn’t happen,” Roth said. “We’re talking about dozens of weddings that never occurred and dozens of kids who were never born, and dozens of Hokies who would’ve made a big difference in our world. That’s what I’m remembering now, 10 years later.”
Virginia Tech has learned from that tragedy. The university has taken great steps to ensure another April 16 does not happen again. The greater Tech community has drawn closer, and will draw closer once again on April 16, 2017.
“I think now, how it’s made us better is — I think we have a great understanding and empathy and compassion when a Sandy Hook happens, where we can relate to what those people are feeling,” Roth said. “Every time something like this happens, it brings back a taste. There’s a taste in your mouth that’s awful… You feel like you want to puke, because you grieve and you remember… I hope it’s made us better, but it hasn’t defined our university, I know that.”
The 10-year anniversary of April 16, 2007 will come, and indeed it will pass. For those of you reading, I leave you with these parting words — never forget.
“The impact that group would have made, that’s what we’re missing now,” Roth said. “I think the most important thing now is that when you walk by the memorial, whenever you’re on campus, whether you’re a student or you’re an alum or a visitor, think not only of those victims but think of the families whose grief will not end.”