Hokie for a weekend
Hoo wants to be a Hokie? That question was raised multiple times last year during the days of Leitao-led wandering in the desert. It was one of the worst basketball seasons in Virginia history, and now this football season seems to be shaping up to be just as historically awful.
So I decided to revisit that troublesome question and revisit my past. As a former Tech student, I had experienced what it was like to be a Hokie fan a few years ago before transferring to Virginia. Is it okay to reminisce and wish I was a Hokie sports fan once more? Or is that blasphemy? There are corollaries that go along with those questions. What is Virginia Tech doing right that Virginia is doing wrong? What can Wahoos learn from the Hokies' success, other than bitterness and envy?
So I decided to do some first-hand investigation into the matter. I decided to re-become, for one more weekend, a Hokie. After a week of pleading and begging with my Hokie friends, I found a student ticket to the No. 13 Virginia Tech-No. 19 Nebraska game in Blacksburg and made plans to sneak into the craziest part of the student section in Lane Stadium - the first row behind the Marching Virginians, maroon and orange all around me.
I had no desire to make this a detached, observational study. I decided to immerse myself in the noises, smells, sights and emotions of a Hokie gameday, hoping to learn if Virginia Tech football fans are all they're cracked up to be. I put on a maroon shirt, went to a tailgate and acted for about 24 hours as if the Hokies really were my team.
So, after a Friday night of board games and TV reruns - I needed to be fully functional for the gameday experience - I woke up Saturday morning and headed to my first-ever Virginia Tech tailgate.
I walked toward the parking lots on the edge of campus and could not believe my eyes. This was no ordinary tailgate. It was a sprawling mecca of football celebration: cheap beer, seven-layer dip, and orange T-shirts as far as the eye could see.
It wasn't people just milling around, ready for a social experience. People were really into it. It seemed every soul was fired up for football. You couldn't go five minutes without hearing someone shout "Let's go!" with a follow-up by everyone around him or her of "Hokies!"
Instead of trash, as I sort of expected, it seemed like class. Sure, there were a few signs like "You honk, we drink" or drawings of cornhuskers suffering painful deaths, but there was also a tent and pickup that had a big poster reading, "Hokie Hospitality: Nebraska fans welcome to join us."
Perhaps the most impressive sight was one Suburban that had, attached to the back, a big-screen TV tuned to ESPN, powered by a small generator. I'm not joking.
After I found my friend, had a burger and dominated a cornhole game, we decided to head to the stadium.
Getting into the stadium was mass hysteria. A large group of people were squeezing and pushing to get to the gate, and I loved it.
Finally I got to my seat, and I was embarrassed with how little internal resistance I faced in getting swept away with Virginia Tech spirit. There was not a spot of bleacher anywhere. More than 60,000 fans gave a deafening "Let's go Hokies" cheer.
All was going well until a few minutes before kickoff, when an earthquake hit. At least, that's what I thought at first. Metallica's "Enter Sandman" began blasting from the speakers and everyone near me started jumping up and down, making the bleachers shake dangerously.
The band started the fight song, the H-O-K-I-E-S flags shot up and the players took the field. Every person in the stadium went absolutely nuts.
The game itself started with a bang. Virginia Tech scored on the first drive, and the noise echoed louder still. The band played the Tech's three-part fight song. I still love our Auld Lang Syne rip-off, but I was really impressed with the fan participation in the Hokie fight song.
It was immediately following this touchdown that I witnessed an awesome tradition. Several fans in the area literally jumped out of the bleachers to the balcony in front of the seats and gave monumental, running-start chest bumps to each other. It was a primal, almost animal-like form of celebration, but I'll be darned if their joy and energy wasn't contagious.
After that opening drive, the game quickly became a snoozer. A field goal here, nice defensive stop there, but not much of the game was "Sportscenter"-worthy.
This was the part of the game in which the fans impressed and surprised me the most. It was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the impatient Virginia fans I know. Nobody checked their phones for texts every five minutes, no flocks of girls in sundresses headed for the exits at halftime and it seemed nobody got bored and sat down, waiting for something to happen. They just stood up and cheered for three good hours.
The game rolled along with little excitement. Just as it seemed Virginia Tech had run out of time, down by five with a minute to go, junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor lobbed the ball downfield in desperation. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Danny Coale grabbed the pass, held on with his fingertips and dashed to the three yard line.
Even I lost it this time. There was a mass of hugging and tackling, a pile of people that would probably be construed as a bar brawl in a different setting.
A few plays later, Taylor threw a game-winning touchdown to sophomore receiver Dyrell Roberts. I got in on the chest-bumping after this score, and scrambled to the balcony, eager for the mass chaos once the last second ticked off on this close win.
What happened next is something about which I remain a little bit ashamed. I saw fans, including my good friends, running down the stairs. Rushing the field after beating a lower-ranked opponent? I've taken a hard stance that rushing the field is overdone.
And yet I still darted down the endzone. What can I say? The fan energy was too much. The tumultuous clamor of overjoyed fans didn't just ring off of the rafters, it echoed in my sports-loving heart. I rushed the field not in celebration of a Hokie win - which I technically root against - but in celebration of the discovery of what a good fan base can bring to the game.
Yeah, the key-clanging on third down is a little bit silly and the rabid enthusiasm is weirdly intense. But it's nice to see people who care about the actual football more than, or at least as much as, the social aspects of the game.
Of course, the Hokies' regular competitiveness is the prime factor in motivating the fans, but the biggest difference between Hokies and Wahoos runs deeper than wins and losses. It's a genuine interest in the sport and a tenacious optimism.
I could bore you with details of the experience I respected and enjoyed - from the classy touch of the Marching Virginians playing the Cornhusker fight song before the game to a guy dressed like a maroon and orange version of King Leonidas from the movie "300" - but the revelation to me is that it's a fan's duty to make a football game a profound experience, not a football team's.
Yeah, Groh should probably go, and we shouldn't accept a losing record, but look in the mirror before you start slinging too much mud. I'm still a Wahoo at heart, and I still think our school is better, but catching the Hokie virus for a weekend verified that Hokies are miles ahead of us as football fans.