Saturday will be an emotional day for many Hokies. Senior Day always is, as players salute Lane Stadium and the Virginia Tech fans for the final time.
Virginia Tech has 17 players on the roster who are playing their final game inside Lane Stadium on Saturday. It’s quite a list of players, including fan favorite walk-ons, yearly contributors, and stars.
Deon Newsome, Eric Gallo and Cam Phillips have had three different career paths, all leading to Saturday vs. Pittsburgh. Each of the three has dealt with obstacles throughout their careers, but hopes to finish their Lane Stadium career on a high note.
For Newsome, the road has been as rocky as it gets. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior from Hampton, Va. redshirted during the 2013 season, his first on campus. Newsome started out as a wide receiver, often taking jet sweeps. In Newsome’s second season, he carved out a role on special teams and on offense, and looked to be a promising option for the future.
All of that changed in October 2015, when Newsome was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated at the Walmart in Christiansburg, roughly 10-15 minutes away from Virginia Tech. Newsome was convicted of a reduced charge in March 2016 and returned to the football team.
Newsome then made a switch to defensive back for the 2016 season, and moved to the whip/nickelback position for 2017. While Newsome has yet to carve out a permanent role outside of special teams, and has yet to settle down at a particular position, Newsome says that he appreciates everything he’s been through in Blacksburg.
“Like you said, I’ve pretty much played a lot of positions here,” Newsome said. “Just learning everything. And with my situation I had, getting in trouble, just growing up. I don’t know how to explain it really. I think I want to just say I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to better myself, learn the different positions and like you said, be able to contribute to the team.”
Newsome, who is in his fifth season at Virginia Tech, could have walked away after last year. He could have decided to drop football altogether, or transfer to another school in search of more playing time. Instead, Newsome stuck it out, and has become one of Virginia Tech’s veterans and consistent leaders on special teams.
“When we watch special teams as a team, he’s always on the clips,” said Eric Gallo. “Always, Coach (James) Shibest is calling him out, telling him he’s doing a great job. I’m happy for him. I’m glad he’s helping our team out a lot.”
“He’s a hard-working dude, one of the most hard-working dudes on the team,” said Travon McMillian, who has known Newsome since his junior year of high school. “Really unselfish player. All about the team, so he has a good head on his shoulders.”
Newsome said that the comraderie with his teammates compelled him to come back.
“It would be kind of cheating yourself, to not come back and do the work, perform and contribute to your team,” Newsome said. “All of y’all are pretty much dying in the summer, but it’s all together, so I feel like you owe it to your guys.”
Cam Phillips was a star on soon as he set foot on the field. The flashy receiver from Laurel, Md. started almost immediately as a freshman, and formed one of the most explosive receiving corps Virginia Tech has ever seen, with Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges. Phillips was the lesser known of the three, but put up just as impressive numbers.
Phillips broke out in 2016, his junior season. He made 76 receptions for 983 yards and five touchdowns, helping Jerod Evans set multiple single season passing records. Phillips capped off his junior season with a MVP performance in the Belk Bowl, catching six passes for 115 yards in Virginia Tech’s come from behind win over Arkansas. With Ford and Hodges off to the NFL, 2017 was supposed to be the year Phillips finally earned the recognition he deserved.
Things started well. Phillips was arguably the best receiver in the nation through the first month of the season, catching 41 passes for 597 yards and five touchdowns in September alone. However, Phillips hurt his foot vs. Boston College on Oct. 7, and hasn’t been the same since. Phillips has eclipsed the 100-yard mark once since his injury, and has just one touchdown reception since then.
Phillips’ nagging injury has slowed the Virginia Tech offense, which is desperately searching for production. As a leader, Phillips isn’t giving up on the season, even if the desired destination is no longer in reach.
“We still have games to play. Just because we can’t go to the ACC Championship, doesn’t mean there’s not anything to play for,” Phillips said. “It’s still pride, it’s still, maybe for guys who have dreams of playing at the next level, maybe that’s their motivation, putting good stuff on film here, or fighting for spots still in the season. Whatever it is, we’ve got to find it in order to get back on the right side of things and feeling better.”
Eric Gallo was pressed into service early in his career. After playing in just three games as a freshman in 2014, Gallo began starting as a sophomore. He impressed, and earned a starting role heading into the 2016 season under Justin Fuente. Things didn’t get off to a great start, and Gallo split time at center with fellow senior Kyle Chung, who plans on requesting a sixth year of eligibility. Gallo eventually reclaimed his spot at center, and has been a stable contributor since. Gallo has played in 39 career games, starting 35 of those, a remarkable feat in itself.
For Gallo, Saturday is personal. He doesn’t want the Hokies to let the deflating loss to Miami linger any longer than it already has.
“We were a bit, maybe a little down in the dumps maybe, because of that heart-breaking loss at Miami,” Gallo said. “But we learned last week, based on that Tuesday, we have to be able to turn the page after games. We’ve got to treat each game like a new season, so that’s what we’re going to have to do (Tuesday) at practice.”
For Gallo, Newsome, and many of the seniors, Saturday will be an emotional one. They’ve each had their own obstacles, their own trials and tribulations. The end of the process can be a bit sobering.
“I don’t know — I’m hoping I’m just able to maintain focus on the game,” Gallo said. “Just try and save the emotional part for after the game. But beforehand, I’ll try my best to stay focused.”
“I don’t see myself doing that,” Newsome said. “I’m not real emotional, but you never know. I mean it is my last one, my last time playing here. So, I feel like I’ll probably be overwhelmed with emotion, but I don’t think I’ll tear up.”
Phillips, however, won’t have an issue staying focused.
“That’s not me,” Phillips said. “Crazy how fast it came, but I’m just really focused on playing well and executing really. There’s a game to play, the last home game, that’s besides the fact for me. I just want to go out and win, and like I said, play well for my team.”
Even if Phillips does shed a tear, that’s fine. He will have been a part of one of the most important senior classes in Virginia Tech history. None of these players were recruited by head coach Justin Fuente, but they’ve been some of his most loyal soldiers, as Fuente attempts to return Virginia Tech to its former prestige.
“I just think that the whole transition was handled so smoothly concerning everybody else, that the players just sort of fell in line with that,” Fuente said. “Meaning administratively from Coach (Frank) Beamer on down, the players fell in line with that and were ready to do whatever we asked them to do. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for that and how they have worked on things that have changed.
“I don’t know — I know this. I don’t know if that’s correlated into success, but I know that we would not have had any chance to have success if they had not done those things that way, and we’re all pretty appreciative of that.”