Commentary

Beamer, Hokies strive for emotional balance in opener

Updated: August 29, 2007, 4:56 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer knows Saturday's opener against East Carolina (ESPN, noon ET) at Lane Stadium will be as emotional as any game he's coached in two decades at his alma mater.

Lane Stadium
Joe Murphy/WireImage.comEveryone surrounding the Virginia Tech program is expecting an emotional scene on Saturday at Lane Stadium.

Tears will be shed. The 32 victims of the horrific April 16 campus shooting will be remembered.

But at the same time, Beamer knows his No. 9 Hokies have to win a ballgame, too.

"We assume that just because there's going to be a great atmosphere in the stadium that everything is going to be OK," Beamer said. "I don't think we can assume that. We've got to make sure we take care of our business as a football team."

The Hokies have tried to find a delicate balance as they prepare for the beginning of a season filled with such great possibilities. While the Virginia Tech campus is filled with the excitement and potential of a new football season, the damage done by a lone gunman on that cold, blustery April morning is still fresh in the minds of everyone here.

"You've got to think about it every day," tailback Branden Ore said. "Each day you wake up in Blacksburg, you think about it."

There is no blueprint for what Virginia Tech faces this coming season. While the Hokies will try to win an ACC championship and contend for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game, players and coaches are being asked to help their school and community heal in the aftermath of the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history.

"We're playing for somebody else, not only ourselves," linebacker Vince Hall said. "We're playing for the victims and their families. We're playing for everybody."

Other schools have looked to athletics as outlets of recovery in the past. In 1966, Texas played Southern Cal only 47 days after Charles Whitman, a former Marine, stood atop the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and shot 47 people with his rifle. Whitman killed 14 people before he was shot and killed by police.

Four years later, on Nov. 14, 1970, while the Marshall University football team was returning to campus in Huntington, W.Va., its chartered Southern DC-9 jet crashed into a hill near the airport. All 75 passengers were killed, including 37 players and eight members of the Thundering Herd's coaching staff. It was the greatest tragedy in the history of the American sports.

Bill "Red" Dawson was the only Marshall coach not on the plane. He and a graduate assistant, Gail Parker, had driven to a junior college in Virginia to recruit a player, then met the team at East Carolina for the game. They were driving back to the junior college to see the recruit again when they heard about the crash on their car radio.

"It was a hell of a shock," Dawson said. "It was disbelief. The hardest part for me was when the families came in right after the plane crash to claim the bodies. Having to talk to them was very tough. [Even] a year ago at this time, there is no way in hell I could have talked about this. There is no way I could have done it."

Dawson said the Marshall players who didn't travel to East Carolina and the team's freshmen, who were ineligible to play in games under NCAA rules at the time, wanted to play the following week's game at Ohio University. But the school canceled the rest of the season.

Marshall officials nearly discontinued its football program, but Dawson and new coach Jack Lengyel persuaded the administration to reconsider. With a team of junior varsity players, athletes from other sports and students who hadn't played before, Marshall fielded a team in 1971 and won two games.

More than 35 years later, Marshall football has recovered, but the community hasn't from its wounds yet. A city councilman, a state legislator and four of the town's six doctors were killed in the crash. The tragedy left 70 children without at least one parent, and 18 were orphaned.

"I walked away after a year because I was burned out," Dawson said. "There were other issues. It was just hard. Right after you go through something like that, you're going to have weaknesses. I just didn't talk about it for years. I didn't want to stir up the spiders and snakes in my head, so I just didn't talk about."

More recently, Texas A&M and Tulane looked to sports for healing or, if nothing else, a distraction.

Building a massive bonfire before the Texas game had been a tradition at Texas A&M for 90 years. But on Nov. 18, 1999, a week before the bonfire was to be lit on Thanksgiving night, the 40-foot high stack of nearly 5,000 logs collapsed while it was being constructed by students. The accident killed 12 students and injured 27 others.

The school's football team and Corps of Cadets helped emergency workers remove logs to rescue the injured and remove bodies.

"We're playing for somebody else, not only ourselves. We're playing for the victims and their families. We're playing for everybody."
-- Virginia Tech LB Vince Hall

A week later, on the night the bonfire was to be lit, more than 40,000 people gathered at the accident site and observed more than two hours of silence. The crowd then walked to Kyle Field for the traditional midnight yell practice, where the crowd spontaneously relit their candles to honor the students who died. The following morning, the Aggies upset the No. 5 Longhorns 20-16 in what was perhaps the most emotional game ever played in College Station, Texas.

"Coming into that week after the tragedy happened, it was of such magnitude that they talked about cancelling the game," said former Aggies coach R.C. Slocum, now a special assistant to the school's president. "I met with the president and we both agreed that it would be in the best interest of the Aggie family to come together and be together, instead of being scattered around the country. We thought it was best to get everybody together and lean on each other."

Slocum, the winningest coach in Texas A&M history with a record of 123-47-2 from 1989-2002, said helping his players cope with the tragedy and loss of lives was his first and most important task.

"No matter how great the tragedy, bad things happen from time to time to a family," he told his team. "When they happen, they startle you. But the only thing you can do is learn from them. One of the things we learned is to pay attention to those close to you, family and friends.

"You do have to move forward. You remember the victims, but you can't dwell on it. I told the team, 'I wish I could tell you this is the last time something bad happens to you and it's the only death you'll have to deal with in your life. But it won't be. Life isn't like that.'"

Slocum said it was difficult to keep his players' attention and focus in the days leading up to the game.

"If you're not careful, you let your mind wander back to the tragedy," Slocum said. "But you really do have to move on. We had people from all over the world here. You couldn't go through the week without it being everywhere. It was obvious you were going to think about it. But we told the players they had to take a certain amount of time each day and focus on football and do what we needed to do. I think by game time the players were ready to cut loose and they really played with a lot of emotion."

Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina forced Tulane's football team to evacuate its campus in New Orleans. The worst natural disaster in U.S. history destroyed much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

The Green Wave football team was displaced to Jackson, Miss., then Dallas and finally Louisiana Tech in Ruston because much of the New Orleans campus was damaged by flooding caused by the killer storm. When Tulane president Scott Cowen announced his decision to field a football team, even though the school had canceled fall semester classes, he said the Green Wave would "carry the torch, be the face and present the name" of Tulane University.

Only 17 days after Katrina destroyed much of their school and many of their parents' homes, the Green Wave played Mississippi State in Shreveport, La. It was the first of 11 games in 11 stadiums in 11 consecutive weeks for Tulane during the 2005 season.

The Green Wave finished with a 2-9 record.

"I thought what really emotionally affected our team the most was that in the back of their minds, it was always there," said former Tulane coach Chris Scelfo, who was fired after the Green Wave struggled to a 4-8 record in 2006.

"And it's always going to stay there. It's not going to go away because the band started playing. Just because you put your helmet on, you don't forget about it. Virginia Tech's not going to forget. Time is the only thing that heals wounds."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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