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Hokie healing through football

By Erik Brady, USA TODAY. Photos by me.

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Sports is often an amnesia machine, allowing fans a fantasyland for forgetting their troubles. That’s not how it will go Saturday at Lane Stadium.

Virginia Tech will use football to remember.

"What happened isn’t going anywhere," quarterback Sean Glennon says. "It’s going to be part of this season. And it should be. The people who died, and their families, they deserve that."

April 16 is shorthand here, the way Sept. 11 is nationally. It means the campus massacre that left 33 dead, including the student gunman who killed himself on that blustery, cold spring day.

Saturday, in the heat of late summer, Virginia Tech will pay pregame tribute to its fallen. Then the Hokies will play East Carolina (noon ET, ESPN). And the mood will shift from tears to cheers.

"I don’t want to trivialize what happened, thinking a football game can do anything to mitigate the grief of families with unbearable loss," communications instructor Roland Lazenby says. "Still, recovering from such a horrific event requires getting back to normal.

"And nothing is more normal about Virginia Tech than (coach) Frank Beamer and his football team. They will be a comfort to us. But we all have to keep those families in the front of our thoughts. For now, it is a little tricky: We have to move on, and stay there, all at once."

That trick was expertly achieved, a day after the shootings, by Nikki Giovanni, a Virginia Tech professor and poet. Her stirring speech to standing-room mourners at the basketball arena was at once somber and raucous. "We will prevail," she said in cadenced closing. "We are Virginia Tech."

Just then a familiar chant went up from the students, starting small and growing to a roar: "Let’s go, Hokies!" It was as if, at the moment of their grief, a football cheer best captured their visceral, defiant reaction to unspeakable horror.

A few complained it made it seem a pep rally, athletics department spokesman Dave Smith says. "That’s not what it was at all," he says. "It was their way of coming together. It was so spontaneous. I knew then that we would be OK."

That simple phrase —We Are Virginia Tech— is everywhere on campus: on banners and T-shirts and in hearts and minds. Saturday, the simple act of going to a game will be a way of living those words.

"People have been talking about this game since the week after everything happened," says senior Bryan Schamus, music minister for Newman Community, the Catholic ministry on campus. "Sometimes I think that’s hard for outside people to really grasp. A lot of people kind of turn their heads, like, ‘Why are you talking about football?’ It can seem like such a trivial thing.

"But that’s our community here. I mean, we have a lot of communities, like where we’re sitting now" at the Newman House, "and so many clubs and organizations, and the list goes on and on. But this place rallies around that football team every year no matter what. In many ways, football defines what Virginia Tech is."

Tech emerged as a national power in the last dozen or so years: The Hokies often are ranked in the top 10, as they are now at No. 9 in the preseason USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll. And 66,233-seat Lane Stadium, in tandem, emerged as a dissonant, intimidating place to play: the greatest home-field advantage in college football, according to a 2005 ranking by Rivals.com.

"I’ve been to plenty of Tech games before. They’re a sight to see," freshman Tommy Burleson says. "But this one will have a completely different feeling to it. I don’t know the words to put it in. It gives me goose bumps, just the thought of how much this game is going to mean."

‘Tougher and tighter then ever’

The aftermath of a massacre has proceeded along procedural, ceremonial and personal tracks. An independent state panel and another from the school have been reviewing the slayings and whether anything could have been done to prevent them. Virginia Tech dedicated a memorial to the victims Aug. 19. The next day, classes began.

Saturday’s first game promises to be a release of emotion, wrapped in tradition. The Tech faithful will come, as always, to cheer and shout and be as one. On this day they also will come to cry and hug and pay their respects.

"After a tragedy like that, we have to react to it by drawing closer and caring about each other more," Beamer says. "Being tighter than ever as a school, as a community, the whole deal. The thing I found, right after the shooting, is that people just wanted to be with other people, hug and tell them they cared."

Beamer understands Saturday is as much about fellowship as football. He played for Tech. He is beginning his 21st season as its coach. In many ways, to paraphrase Giovanni, Beamer is Virginia Tech.

"I think people are looking forward to getting into that stadium," he says. "Sixty-some thousand will be there and show their togetherness, and we’re going to be tougher and tighter than ever. I think that’s kind of the mood here. There’s no question people want to rally around something."

Virginia Tech plays its second game at No. 2 Louisiana State on Sept. 8. If the Hokies win the opener against East Carolina and defeat LSU, they could be on their way to a dream season. Fans across the nation will be rooting for them. Keep winning, and they could be college football’s story of the year.

"That’s the plan," Glennon says. "It would almost be like a movie."

Beamer, coach-like, declines to look ahead. "We worry about LSU the second week," he says. He talks about the twin obstacles his Hokies face Saturday: an underrated opponent and their own emotions.

"No question it will be an emotional day," says Smith, a 32-year veteran of the athletic department. He pauses, tears welling. "I get emotional just thinking about it."

Linebacker Xavier Adibi says it’s hard to know what it will be like before the game, but it’s "very possible" some players will cry.

"There’s going to be a lot of emotions," wide receiver Justin Harper says. "We’re looking to carry the campus and town on our backs."

Beamer says his team must play with emotion but not be overwhelmed by it.

"Take care of the little things, and the big things will come," he says. "That’s always been a big slogan with me, and I don’t think it has ever been more true. I think we’ve got to take care of getting better every day in practice and if we do, then we’ll be a good football team when we roll out there against East Carolina."

‘Playing our tails off’

Lazenby was teaching a journalism class in a building near Norris Hall when the shootings there started. He told his students they should report on the events even as they were unfolding. Much of their work appeared on the student-run website planetblacksburg.com.

A book based on that reporting came out Tuesday. April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers, organized as a series of oral narratives, was edited by Lazenby and written and collected by seven students, including senior Neal Turnage.

"Football is the glue that holds us together," Turnage says. "This game is our first chance to get back to our state of mind before the shootings. There is always an air of anticipation for the first football game, but it is higher than ever. It will be a nice, healing event."

That’s a lot to ask of a football team, not merely to win but to heal. Isn’t that a lot of pressure?

"This year is different," Beamer acknowledges, "and the responsibility with that, you accept."

Glennon believes in the notion of healing by football. "I think that will just come with us playing our tails off," he says. "I don’t think we have to go out there and do anything special. As long as the fans see we’re doing everything we can for them and the university, that’s all they can ask for. And it’s a given we’re going to give them that."

The Hokies had the best defense in the nation last season, as measured by yardage and points allowed. Beamer’s teams nearly always shine on special teams. The question mark this year is offense. In many ways, that depends on Glennon. Last season, his first as starting quarterback, he threw as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns and the 10-3 Hokies finished No. 18 in the nation.

Glennon went to Westfield High in Centreville, Va., as did the gunman, Seung Hui Cho, and two of those he killed, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson. Glennon didn’t know Cho and only knew of the victims. "But it’s one degree of separation," he says. "You kind of knew all these people."

Now he wants to play well, healingly well, for the people of Virginia Tech. And the best way to do it, he says, is to live by Giovanni’s rousing, unifying credo.

"She really made that just as famous as any of the poems or books she’s written," Glennon says.

"It’s everywhere. People are embracing it. I’m proud to be a part of this school. And I believe in this football team that we will prevail."

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