- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's August 23, 2010, issue. Subscribe today!
"Do you hear it?"
Tyrod Taylor and his fellow Hokies were crammed chest-to-back inside the Avery Tunnel, a 200-foot-long portal that dips into the ground alongside the practice fields before spilling onto the north end zone of Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium. "I said, do you hear it?!"
As his veteran teammates barked the question into his face mask, Taylor, a freshman, didn't know which "it" currently bombarding his eardrums they were referring to. All around him players bounced up and down, cleats slamming the concrete floor. Their leather gloves slapped slabs of Hokie Stone, the signature local limestone used to build many of the campus buildings. The front end of a muffled roar pushed up the narrow passageway, just ahead of the opening notes of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," like a bubble on the verge of exploding on the team. Some Hokies screamed, others stared quietly ahead, toward the literal light at the end of the tunnel, where 66,000 fans and the East Carolina Pirates waited.
Taylor's first collegiate tunnel walk, on Sept. 1, 2007, was also the first for Tech since the campus shootings on April 16 that killed 32 and wounded the country. So the fans in Blacksburg were coaxing their team with noise, hoping the sound of it pouring up that tunnel might wash away a little more of the blood that still stained the campus. "It," Taylor thought, sounded like relief.
"I didn't know what to do with myself," he says. Now the senior quarterback, Taylor will be charged with leading the Hokies out of that tunnel seven times this season. "I still don't. I can't imagine one other single spot on Earth with so much happening in such a small space. I live for it."
The stadium tunnel is where college football's everlasting principles -- tradition and cliché -- collide to create the sport's most emotionally stirring moments. It is where ghosts are honored, statues are rubbed and tears are shed. It is that rarest of places where everyone, even a walk-on kicker whose name is misspelled in the program, gets to feel like Mark Ingram for a moment. "I have shared tunnels with some of the greatest players in college football history," says Lou Holtz, he of Arkansas, NC State, Notre Dame, South Carolina and now ESPN. For the record, he has also shared the space with marching bands, horses, a buffalo, movie stars, bomb squads and Vegas showgirls. "It's a bizarre, wonderful, sometimes scary place. But there is no place a team feels more like a team than there in that tunnel in the moments before kickoff."
For players, the trip through the tunnel is transforming, a chance to shed all irrelevant concerns. The days prior have been filled with film study and practice, classes and girlfriend drama, media interviews, family obligations. The tunnel is a car wash, rinsing off the outside to arrive at the moment everything else has built toward. "All the BS goes away here," says Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson as he stands beneath the wrought iron and concrete archway that separates the Yellow Jackets' locker room from the subterranean passage into Bobby Dodd Stadium. "Here it's about nothing but football, nothing but the team. I've been in the tunnel for Army-Navy, at Notre Dame. The bells and whistles may change from place to place, but the basic emotion is the same."
Johnson motions to the signs that hang directly above the arch. Inscribed are the names of Tech greats, including former head coach John Heisman. (Yes, that Heisman.) The gallery is a final reminder to every Yellow Jacket that, as he runs out behind the team's 1930 "Ramblin' Wreck" Model A Ford, he is entering America's oldest on-campus stadium. "I like to think about those gentlemen entering the stadium," Johnson says. "Even back then, I have to think, the thrill of taking the field was the same."
Enter at your own risk
The right entrance can get visitors off on the wrong foot. We asked a sampling of players in each of the 11 conferences -- confidentially, of course -- to tell us which rival has the most intimidating tunnel.
ACC: VaTech 60% of the vote
"The whole stadium goes nuts when 'Enter Sandman' starts to play. You can stand right next to somebody and still not be able to hear him."
Big 12: Nebraska 58.3%
"You walk right through their fan section, and there's definitely a lot of cussing."
Big East: West Virginia 55.5%
"It's so rowdy when we play there. I wish we could just appear on the sidelines and start the game."
Big Ten: PSU 56.3%
"Fans can literally reach out and touch you. It's dangerous. I actually think the NCAA needs to look into it."
C-USA: East Carolina 42.9%
"The crowd is hostile, and they blast a cannon that's really loud. It's pretty nerve-wracking to walk out there."
MAC: CMU 52.9%
"Everybody was yelling at us. Even their recruits were talking smack!"
MWC: Air Force 44.4%
"All the cadets line up screaming about the altitude. Signs on the wall have the elevation too."
Pac-10: USC 55.5%
"It's pretty intimidating to see all their national championships on the wall as you walk toward the field."
SEC: LSU 45.4%
"The crowd's right there, holding signs, yelling crazy, crazy things."
Sun Belt: UL-Lafayette 41.7%
"I hate going out that tunnel. They have some horrible, horrible fans. It's a good thing for them, though."
WAC: Fresno State 81.8%
"It's a pretty long walk from the locker room to the field, and the fans are only behind a rope. Some of them don't seem to like me much."
Same thrill? Heisman -- and Rockne and Staubach too -- may have been greeted by marching bands and cheerleaders. Today's teams are enveloped by hip-hop and flash pots and HD JumboTrons. In fact, the modernized routines are one more bit of leverage in the college football arms race, a recruiting tool as potent as fashion-forward uniforms and facilities upgrades. Nebraska, for one, tweaked its tunnel walk years ago. Sensing that its white-bread pregame festivities might be losing recruits to hipper shows to the west and south, Cornhusker officials reinvented the team's Memorial Stadium entrance in 1994. Today, as The Alan Parsons Project's familiar anthem "Sirius" plays, videos that are custom-edited weekly flicker to life on the giant HuskerVision screens. A live camera feed follows the team as members leave the locker room, enter the tunnel and reach to slap the lucky horseshoe mounted overhead. When the first red jersey appears in the tunnel arch, the crowd goes appropriately apoplectic. These days, anyway.
"The first time it was almost silent," says Zach Wiegert, All-America offensive tackle on the '94 team. "Keep in mind, this is Lincoln, so anything out of the routine is crazy. Now, though, it's tradition. And if you throw it at a high school kid, he'll fax his letter of intent from right there on the field."
Pete Carroll overhauled USC's entrance when he took over the program in 2001, knowing that coveted local recruits who were sitting in the LA Coliseum stands would leave dreaming of one day taking part. Butch Davis came to North Carolina in 2007 attesting to the magic conjured at his last stop, Miami, whenever the team emerged through smoke. UNC immediately upgraded its entrance and nearly as quickly began to retain the in-state talent previously raided by rival schools. To combat the Tar Heels' spectacle, NC State commissioned a Wolfpack sculpture for Carter-Finley Stadium's new tunnel and cranked up the smoke machine.
When Tennessee launched its $200 million renovation plan for 89-year-old Neyland Stadium, the first phase included converting its unsightly steel beam-wrapped walkway into a true redbrick tunnel lined with images of team legends like Peyton Manning and Reggie White. "A truly great tunnel makes you feel a certain way," says former Volunteer and current Kansas City Chief Eric Berry. "It carries you into the fight. It makes you feel like a gladiator."
This is no accident.
In 1913, Yale formed a committee to devise a plan for spicing up the school's athletic facilities. The first idea was to construct a 50,000-seat replica of the Roman Colosseum. Architect Charles A. Ferry, class of 1871, simplified that blueprint while promising that his earthen bowl would still provide an appropriate spiritual connection to arenas of old.
Tunnels were central to his vision. When the Yale Bowl opened for the Harvard game in 1914, spectators walked through 30 concrete portals spaced evenly around the oval structure. Players, meanwhile, descended underground through a 15-by-10-foot trench that began at street level and sloped down onto the field. "That was a very deliberate move by Mr. Ferry," former Eli head coach Carm Cozza says nearly a century later, on a stroll through the bowl's main entrance. "He was a student of classic architecture. At the Colosseum the gladiators entered through tunnels. They came in from the bottom, greeted by the fans, who came in from the top."
In 1923, both the Rose Bowl and LA Coliseum were christened. They were joined soon after by a Midwestern stadium boom, from South Bend to Madison. Nearly every architect followed Ferry's neoclassical lead. When construction began on Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor in 1926, one of the first tasks was digging the huge trench that became the entrance tunnel. "Have you ever stood in that thing?" asks former Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen, furrowing his brow as he tries to wrap his brain around the memory. "At the top it's so big you could fly a plane into it. Then there's this giant slope, like a ski slope, and by the time you get to the bottom it's just a tiny doorway that empties out into 110,000 people."
One big fan of the funnel tunnel was Bo Schembechler, who felt the narrow sideline archway helped create a feeling of pressure building between the locker room and the playing field, pressure that needed release. He liked to compare the sensation to the process once used by California gold miners to create hydraulic pressure. Water was sent downhill in a large pipe and forced into a series of ever-smaller pipes, increasing in speed until finally reaching a release nozzle at the end. The water blasted out with enough force to strip mountainsides.
Not every stadium has such subterranean access. Newer and smaller buildings are just as likely to use gaps between grandstands as an entryway. But where's the fun in that? "You improvise," admits Clemson QB Kyle Parker. "You grab a bunch of people and make your own tunnel."
That's what the Tigers do, at least. Back in 1942, sensing a need for excitement at his tunnelless stadium, head coach Frank Howard marched his team to the top of the grassy hill that drops into the stadium's east end zone. Students instinctively lined "the Hill," providing a human tunnel through which the team could pass as it sprinted down the 100-foot embankment. "The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football" was born. In 1983, South Carolina head coach Joe Morrison, having grown sick of hearing about his rival's famous entrance, took a page from Ric Flair's manual of hype, sending his Gamecocks running from under the stands of Williams-Brice Stadium to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They've done it ever since. Other schools with no tunnel have figured out their own ways to create virtual ones, from Miami's curtain of smoke to the canvas-covered archway built into the fieldhouse at Texas' Memorial Stadium.
If smoke and canvas aren't in the budget, there is always the inflatable route. Yes, the people who make those bouncy castles and moonwalkers for your nephew's birthday party can also work up a little "Enter Sandman" frenzy for your alma mater. Big Productions of Westlake, Ohio, provides "Sports Tunnels," "Helmet Tunnels" and "Mascot Tunnels" for the likes of Indiana State and the Air Force Academy. Can't afford Nick Saban? For around five grand your team can emerge through a two-story vinyl version of his head. "We don't have Michigan Stadium here in Jonesboro," says Arkansas State head coach Steve Roberts. What the Red Wolves do have is a long, black Big Productions inflatable tunnel they use to enter 30,000-seat ASU Stadium. "But I can tell you the emotion inside our tunnel is no less real than what we saw in Nebraska last year."
Be it concrete, brick, vinyl or smoke, every tunnel has a tale to tell -- of glory or pain or, on that September day three years ago in Blacksburg, epiphany.
When the Hokies were finally given the signal to charge the field, the roar, muffled no more, flooded Taylor's helmet, a release of nearly five months' worth of emotion. He looked up as he ran, slowing to take in the smoke and flags, the music and color. As he hit the sideline, the upperclassmen grabbed him again. "Do you hear it now?!" they shouted. "The sound in that tunnel is the sound of your destiny!"
Taylor still breaks into a face-splitting smile when he talks about his first underground trip. He does the same when he looks ahead to this year's home opener, Sept. 11 vs. James Madison. "That first time I was like a little kid at an amusement park," he says. "And I still am. Every week, as soon as we get out of the tunnel all I can think is, Can we do that again?"
The best part of game day, of course, is the W at the end. But that grand entrance at the beginning is pretty sweet too.