As the final whistle blew on a 10-0 defeat, the full-capacity crowd at Scott Stadium dispersed and only pockets of maroon and orange-covered Hokie fans remained celebrating in Charlottesville. That November 2017 evening, Micah Kiser should have been distraught with having ended his legendary career at Virginia without ever beating in-state rival Virginia Tech.
The decorated linebacker, however, scanned the locker room while holding his #53 jersey for the last time and cracked a subtle smile as he watched the team’s freshmen and sophomores break down the game only minutes after it had ended — it was then that Kiser knew the streak of losing to Virginia Tech wouldn’t last much longer.
Two years later while Scott Stadium — this time roaring with Cavalier pride — erupted in celebration after Virginia recovered a strip-sack fumble in the endzone to secure their first win against Virginia Tech in 15 years, Kiser had the same smile on his face as his former young teammates held up the Commonwealth Cup.
Kiser left Virginia in 2017 as one of the greatest linebackers and players in program history. The Maryland native led the ACC in tackles for three straight seasons, was named to numerous All-American and All-ACC teams during his career and was one of the faces of the program on and off the field.
After receiving the prestigious “academic Heisman” Campbell Award in 2017, Kiser was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the 2018 NFL draft and has already found success at the professional level, including a trip to Super Bowl LIII during his rookie year.
Ironically, Kiser didn’t know the stakes of the Commonwealth Clash until coming to Virginia in 2013.
“I'm from Maryland … Virginia Tech didn't mean anything to me at all,” Kiser said in an exclusive Zoom interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I was not a not a big Virginia fan, didn't know much about Virginia Tech, obviously. I knew they were a great, great team with Michael Vick … but as far as the rivalry between the two schools, I didn't care at all.”
But the annual matchup against the Hokies quickly became a cornerstone for Kiser as he realized the Clash shaped how the Cavaliers’ season overall went.
“We could either go to a bowl game or kind of like save our season by beating Tech … so that's what made it really important,” Kiser said.
Both the Commonwealth Clash and Virginia’s program took a huge pivot when Bronco Mendenhall became head coach in 2016, Kiser’s junior season. Mendenhall had an immediate impact on Kiser’s view of the rivalry, as his message was clear — you can’t be a strong program until you compete in the most meaningful games of the season.
“When Coach Mendenhall got there, he made [the Commonwealth Clash] a lot more personal,” Kiser said. “He always talked about how important it is to beat your rivals and try to own the state. And unfortunately, when I was there, we could never do it.”
But Kiser knew turning the team around was no easy task and would take some time. Virginia had strung together a streak of losing seasons and hadn’t beaten Virginia Tech in over a decade before Mendenhall took the helm.
“We were mentally scarred because we had been through so much — we had been down and we were losers, you know,” Kiser said. “So he had to do a lot of mental work with us to change our mindset, change our motto and change, you know, just the makeup of the team … [Mendenhall] started establishing a system of personal accountability from the player's perspective on behalf of the program.”
Specifically, Kiser noticed how as the years went on, Mendenhall rallied the team from the beginning of the season around the Commonwealth Clash. From the start of spring practices, Mendenhall would motivate the team’s whole season around playing their best football in the season finale matchup against the Hokies. By the time Kiser left Virginia and Mendenhall had put his mark on the program, Kiser noticed how different the Cavaliers’ mindset was regarding the rivalry.
“When I left, [Virginia] really started going all in and the whole season was basically ‘beat Tech, beat Tech, beat Tech.’ And, you know, they put a lot of pressure on themselves, but they got it done so it was good to see,” Kiser said. “I'm glad to see that they were able to get it done last year and seeing what Bryce Perkins and those guys did was awesome. And the program is definitely in the right trajectory right now.”
To Kiser, the right trajectory goes beyond the team’s success on the field. Kiser was a renowned leader at Virginia and was revered for his character and involvement in the community, something he really enjoys seeing among Virginia’s current players. As a senior, Kiser served as a mentor for players like fellow linebacker Charles Snowden and wide receiver Terrell Jana, who were freshmen at the time. Snowden and Jana, who are now seniors, are part of the Groundskeepers initiative at Virginia that seeks to advocate for social justice in the Charlottesville community.
“With the Groundskeepers, I think that's just awesome to see,” Kiser said. “I'm especially proud of Terell Jana, he was kind of quiet when I was first there, and to see him stepping into a position of leadership not only on the field but off the field leadership too is just great to see. Charles was a guy that we always knew [was a leader]. We were jokingly calling him ‘The Pres’ when I was there. So, you know, seeing Charles do that, that's just what we expect out of him.”
Now a player on the Los Angeles Rams, Kiser’s been able to translate his success from college to the NFL. His professional career has been stifled with injuries, but he’s had some standout performances nonetheless. During the Rams’ win against the Philadelphia Eagles in week two of this season, Kiser led the Rams with 16 tackles and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
The Rams’ Coach Sean McVay is impressed with Kiser’s physical gifts but also his awareness on the field.
“You feel his physicality,” McVay said. “He has great command of what’s going on.”
For Aaron Donald, Rams defensive lineman and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Kiser is just tapping into what he sees as enormous potential.
“I think he'll continue to get better, and he's got an opportunity to be a special football player,” Donald said.
In a defense that features the likes of Donald and Jalen Ramsey, both of whom are regarded as among the best defensive players at their position, Kiser making his mark at linebacker is no small feat. The pressure and difficulty of playing in the NFL is something he credits the Commonwealth Clash with preparing him for.
“The intensity of the games — I think you can feel it and you just have to kind of get used to it,” Kiser said. “Some of the adversity of playing at Lane [Stadium] definitely gets you ready for those big games in that big spotlight of being in the NFL.”
When Virginia squares off with Virginia Tech Saturday, Kiser will surely feel the intensity of the matchup as he cheers on his former teammates. Kick-off at Lane Stadium is set for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.