KRAGTHORPE: Hokies play with purpose
Saturday, Joe Saunders will be preparing to play baseball for the Los Angeles Angels, wishing he could be in a football stadium thousands of miles away.
Virginia Tech will open the college football season against East Carolina, not quite five months after a gunman killed 32 students and faculty members in an event that particularly shook the campus and anyone with a connection to the school - including Saunders, a Tech alumnus.
It will be day of sadness and celebration, of mourning and bonding, of helplessness and togetherness.
Amid the realization that nothing that happens on the field in a nationally televised game could change what took place in April, it will bring to life another reason we all love college football: the communal experience that only a campus setting and the love of a school can produce.
"It'll be something to see," Saunders was saying one day this summer, while pitching for the Salt Lake Bees. "Trust me, I'll be watching that game."
He's not the only one. Virginia Tech should be everybody's second-favorite team this season, as the Hokies play their part in the healing process. Saunders made a contribution of his own in April, when he pitched six shutout innings for the Angels against Seattle, while wearing a Virginia Tech cap.
"It was obviously a big win for the Hokies, because they were going through a tough time and I wanted to at least take their minds off what was going on," Saunders said. "If I could make them smile just a little bit, that was my goal. It was really a touching moment for me."
Now, it's the Tech football team's turn. Heavily favored over East Carolina, the Hokies will feel some pressure in an effort to honor the victims with their play. Greg Porter will understand their feelings.
Currently a Bees outfielder, Porter was a football and baseball player for Texas A&M, where 12 students died in 1999 when a stack of bonfire logs collapsed. That tragedy, during preparations for a traditional event scheduled the night before the Aggies' football rivalry game with Texas, created even more of an intense, almost religious atmosphere for the game a week later.
"It hits home, because it's local," Porter said. "Everywhere you go, you hear about it. We said we were going to play like it was our last game, because it made us realize that you never know in life; it could be your last game."
By rallying for a 20-16 victory, the Aggies made the day even more memorable. Yet like everyone else who was there among the 86,000 fans, I will always be struck more by the tributes to the victims and the feelings about the school that reverberated throughout Kyle Field than the outcome of the game.
It will be the same way Saturday at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., as the No. 9 Hokies take the field. Regardless of the score, honoring those students and teachers and having 66,000 fans join in a common purpose and expressing all kinds of emotions will be the story of the day.
"It's going to be tough, because it's always going to be there," Saunders said. "In time, people won't really forget, but it will pass on. For all the Hokie alumni, it'll always be there in their hearts somewhere."
Saunders was nervous the night he took the mound in his maroon cap with "VT" in orange letters, realizing that he was risking something in his effort to honor the school. He delivered, and the response was overwhelming. He received dozens of what he described as "heartfelt" letters from fans of the school who appreciated his gesture - and his performance.
Nobody's asking the Virginia Tech football team to win every game this season, although it could happen. What really matters is that the Hokies serve as a unifying force, bringing positive attention to the school with their efforts. Longtime coach Frank Beamer gained my respect in April when he canceled the rest of spring practice in the wake of the tragedy. Now, he knows his team can and must demonstrate that while the victims will never be forgotten, life does go on for others.
And if the Hokies' winning a bunch of football games gives people some joy, that's a good thing. Just as the Fightin' Texas Aggies did in '99, Virginia Tech has something to play for this season.