Im up early on Saturday morning, after staying with good friends in Charlotte for the night it’s an easy two hour drive north up into Blacksburg, Virginia. Streaking through the foothills and into the Appalachian backbone up I-77, I stop for a quick breakfast in the idyllic little downtown of Mount Airy, North Carolina. Mount Airy’s claim to fame is that it was the inspiration for “Mayberry” the famous small town backdrop of the Andy Griffith show and the actors home town. Touristy “Mayberry” decorations hang from the various ice cream and souvenir shops lining the street, and bluegrass music pumps in over a few speakers.
I pull up a table at the landmark Snappy Lunch, an iconic little diner on North Main Street operating since 1923. Wood paneling lines the little interior, and pictures of the Andy Griffith show hang dustily on the walls. I order up their famous pork chop sandwich, a hearty bargain at $4.20, and opt for the loaded version which comes with a full dressing of chili, cole slaw, mustard, onion and tomato. The massive sandwich arrives a few minutes later, wrapped in wax paper with no plates or utensils of any kind. It’s a delightfully greasy yet disastrous affair, as the pork flops out of the flimsy bun on all sides. Within seconds, the grease has all but dissolved the wax paper, and I’m left with a quivering pile of pork, slaw, and garnish smeared onto the table like a toddler. My kind of place…
I’m in town for the Virginia Tech game, one of the bigger remaining ACC schools I have yet to see. Quietly one of the most successful programs in the past decade, the Hokies are the 7th winningest program in the country during that time frame – their 107 total wins besting such juggernauts as Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. The mastermind behind that success has been 27 year head coach Frank Beamer. Beamer, known for his specific brand of football known as “Beamer Ball” – an approach which emphasizes special teams play and turnover creation – has amassed 225 wins in his coaching career, and is currently the winningest active coach in the game.
As I pull into Blacksburg, the soaring concrete grandstands of Lane Stadium appear in the distance. Maroon and Orange tents line Southgate Drive, the main drag cutting into campus, and the sidewalks overflow with Hokie fans gearing up for an early noon kickoff. I find free street parking in the residential neighborhoods lining South Main Street, and walk past a few delightfully unruly house parties spilling out of student houses on the way to the stadium. A live band set up in the garage thunders over loudspeakers, while a hundred plus students guzzle morning keg beers from red solo cups. If kickoff wasn’t looming, I’d crash the party for refreshments.
I circle the stadium for a few minutes, wagging a lone finger in the air as I scour the scene for tickets. There are plenty to be had, and I finally settle on a choice seat 20 rows up on the 40 yard line for thirty bucks, about half face value. Minutes later, the Marching Virginians – the Virginia Tech marching band – proceeds by as fans line both sides of Spring Road in a gauntlet. The Marching Virginians are followed by the Highty Tighties, the original Virginia Tech marching band comprised entirely of Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. As one of only six Senior Military Colleges in the US, Virginia Tech enjoys a strong presence of campus Corps of Cadets, with over 1,000 students participating in military education and drill in addition to their usual course loads. Texas A&M is one of the other six Senior Military Schools, and for those familiar with the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, it shares many similarities with the Highty Tighties (a name at which I can’t help but chuckle).
On the field, the Highty Tighties perform a handful of pre game marches before forming a gauntlet on the Northwest endzone as the final few minutes of the pre game clock wind down. Moments later, the crowd jolts to their feet as the first few chords of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” burst over the loudspeakers. Reputed to be among the best entrances in the game, the crowd bounces as the heavy metal classic builds intensity for nearly 45 seconds, the players leaping and whooping in the tunnel. Finally, the intro erupts into Metallica’s signature crushing guitar din as the players bound onto the field, the crowd wailing into a deafening roar. By any measure, it’s one of the better entrances in the game, especially for a mild noon kickoff. I can only imagine the chaos of a night game…
Unfortunately for the Hokies, the game proves a rather challenging one. Despite the roar of the afternoon crowd, Georgia Tech runs their signature triple option attack. The methodical clock grinding of the Yellow Jacket ground attack slows the game down, and the Hokies are never able to pull away. Despite leading for most of the contest, the Hokies cough up three turnovers, stymying their attempts to put Georgia Tech away, and the plucky visitors keep hanging around. Finally, late in the fourth quarter, the game breaks and the battered Hokie defense collapses. Georgia Tech converts on a 31 yard touchdown pass to knot the score at 24 apeice with only two minutes remaining. On first play of the ensuing Virginia Tech drive, quarterback Michael Brewer promptly fires his third interception of the day, and second of the quarter. The Hokie crowd collectively wails in agony, knowing their defense is all but exhausted from three quarters of triple option pounding. After patiently driving 33 yards, Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker boots in a chipshot field goal as the clock expires, and the Jackets skate away with a 27-24 win. For a Frank Beamer coached team that prides itself on winning the turnover battle, the three interceptions (two in the fourth quarter) are the difference maker, and the Hokies already have a second blemish on their 2014 record.
After the game, I tour the immaculate Virginia Tech campus. Centered around a sprawling oval drill field, the well manicured lawns are flanked by beautiful bluish gray “Hokie Stone” clad buildings, a distinct limestone native to the area. I pay a visit to the April 16th memorial, a semicircular arrangement of 32 Hokie Stones – each dedicated to the 32 students, staff, and faculty that lost their lives during the tragic campus shooting in 2007. Even for someone with no formal affiliation to the school, the memorial is a sobering one. It’s impossible not to feel emotional when seeing the stones, tributes, and photos of those that perished on that day – and to consider all the possibilities of those lives that were lost. In my world of stadiums, BBQ and beers, it can be easy to lose sight of that which is truly important in the world. But if there is a positive to be taken away from something as solemn as the April 16th memorial at Virginia Tech, it’s that it forces a rare moment of introspection and self reflection for all those who pass by.
Thank you to Suzie and Tim for some great recommendations, most of which I unfortunately didn’t have time to hit. But all the more reason for me to meet you guys back here next year for a full tour of Blacksburg, and a rockin’ night game in Lane Stadium!