Hokies unite to begin healing process

Campus venues in Blacksburg, normally reserved for the excitement and innocence of intercollegiate athletics, were transformed into places for healing and grieving Tuesday.

Updated: April 18, 2007, 2:07 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- When Virginia Tech student Brandi Baumeier saw thousands of people lined up on the sidewalks surrounding Cassell Coliseum and Lane Stadium on Tuesday morning, the scene immediately reminded her of a much more joyous event.

Vatech students
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoKris King sheds a tear during the convocation ceremony honoring the victims of Monday's tragedy.

"I looked out the window and it looked like a football game -- the colors and the mass exodus," said Baumeier, a junior from Newport News, Va., "but then you realize there are 32 people who aren't walking down to the football game."

Cassell Coliseum and Lane Stadium, campus venues normally reserved for the excitement and innocence of intercollegiate athletics, were transformed into places for healing and grieving Tuesday. One day after a gunman -- identified by police Tuesday morning as 23-year-old senior Cho Seung-Hui -- massacred 32 people in the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history, thousands of Virginia Tech students, faculty and others gathered on campus for a convocation to remember the killer's victims and those he wounded.

Those gathered on the Virginia Tech campus first filled more than 10,000 seats in Cassell Coliseum, the home for the school's basketball and volleyball teams, which was at capacity in less than an hour. The overflow crowd, which wrapped around Cassell and extended past the tennis courts on Washington Street, then filled nearly the entire playing field and several thousand seats in the aluminum bleachers at Lane Stadium, the school's football facility.

The convocation, which included remarks from President Bush, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Virginia Tech president Charles Steger, was shown on the Jumbotron screen in the north end zone of Lane Stadium. A candlelight vigil was held on Tuesday night at the former military school's drill field.

"We were just saying it felt weird with all these people coming all dressed up in their Hokie stuff and going to Lane Stadium, and there's a depressing feeling," said Brendan Carroll, a junior from Mechanicsville, Va.

Virginia Tech students and alumni long have been known as some of the most loyal and fanatical football fans in the country, even before current Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick led the upstart Hokies to an appearance in the 1999 national championship game. Playing at Lane Stadium is considered one of the toughest road games in the country for opponents, especially if the game is played on a Thursday night.

"I've never been able to hear in here during games," said Chris McMackin, a junior from Belmont, Mass., and a member of the school's rugby team. "I'd have to be screaming at you for you to hear me now. But this is the total opposite. It's so quiet in here."

Todd Tomaski, a senior from Ellicott City, Md., sat near the 20-yard line on the Lane Stadium field with friends, a few minutes before the convocation started in nearby Cassell Coliseum.

"It sends the wrong kind of chills down your body," Tomaski said. "It's not the chills you get at a football game. It's the chills you get when you lose classmates. It's just unbelievable."

Jarrod Reames, a 23-year-old senior from Mechanicsville, Va., sat nearby on the turf that hadn't yet greened. The finance major just had completed his sixth football season at Virginia Tech, and Tuesday's setting was unlike anything he had ever experienced at Lane Stadium.

Vatech students
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoPresident Bush addressed thousands of Virginia Tech students, saying schools should be places of "safety, sanctuary and learning."

"You can't even put it into words," Reames said. "Usually when you step in here, there's a team running through the gates that's about to bring the house down. Now you're waiting to hear [President Bush] speak. It's an unbelievable tragedy."

But even while enduring the darkest days in the history of the university, the Hokies somehow still seemed to be at their best Tuesday. Late Monday, students began text messaging each other, encouraging everyone to wear Chicago maroon and burnt orange, the school's official colors, to the convocation as a show of unity. Nearly everyone who stood in the long line complied with the request. The crowd was littered with "Maroon Effect" T-shirts, replicas of Vick's No. 7 jersey and other Hokie shirts and sweaters.

"It's just how it is here," said John Riley, a sophomore from Greensboro, N.C., and member of the school's swimming and diving team. "We're a family."

As darkness fell on Tuesday night, thousands of Virginia Tech students, faculty and area residents poured into the center of campus for the candlelight vigil.

Most of the event was devoted to silence and quiet reflection. As the silence spread across the grassy bowl of the drill field, a pair of trumpets began to play taps. A few in the crowd began to sing Amazing Grace.

"We will move on from this. But it will take the strength of each other to do that," Zenobia Hikes, vice president for student affairs, told the Associated Press. "We want the world to know we are Virginia Tech, we will recover, we will survive with your prayers."

Few student bodies seem as closely attached to its sports teams as Virginia Tech's nearly 26,000 students. So much so that the school's decision to cancel Saturday's spring intra-squad football game at Lane Stadium was met with mixed reviews at the convocation. A softball game Tuesday night at East Tennessee State was canceled, and a Wednesday home baseball game against William & Mary was nixed. The Hokie baseball team plans to play a three-game series against Miami this weekend, and the school's tennis, track and golf teams will travel out of town for ACC championships later this week. The first game to be played on campus will be on Friday with the baseball team taking on Miami.

"I think it was the right thing to do," defensive end Orion Martin, a junior from Martinsville, Va., said of the decision to cancel the remainder of spring football practice. "It gives everyone a chance to go home with their families and feel safe."

Even though Cam Martin, a sophomore linebacker from Martinsville, Va., agreed with the decision to cancel the game, he wondered if playing the game wouldn't have given the school's students and fans a much-needed diversion from their grief.

"I'm kind of surprised we're not going to play," Martin said. "But I think they made the right decision. I'd feel bad going out and playing the game knowing 33 people lost their lives."

Even in this Southern college football hotbed, a game that matters so much seemed unimportant in light of Monday's tragedy.

"Football is about the least important thing right now," said Brenden Hill, a starting linebacker on last season's team. "And it usually matters the most."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mark Schlabach | email

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