BLACKSBURG, Va. – Hours before the opening kickoff, Virginia Tech fans already were lining up in full maroon-and-orange regalia.
They weren't preparing to enter Lane Stadium, though they'd get there soon enough. They instead were taking their turns walking past the memorial honoring the 32 innocent victims of the April 16 shootings that shook their beloved campus.
Before they started to cheer, they needed to shed a few tears.
"It's hard for people, unless they are part of the community, to understand the connection that we have with each other," said John Houchens, who grew up 30 minutes from the Virginia Tech campus and spent Saturdays on the sidelines as a ball boy for much of the 1970s. "You can be in other parts of the world, other places in the country, but you see somebody wearing the Virginia Tech logo, it's an immediate bond and an opportunity to say hello and just connect. I don't know what it is. I don't know how to describe it."
Houchens didn't know any of the victims, but the former Virginia Tech student still considered them part of his family. That's why he made sure to purchase three dozen roses Saturday before returning to campus for the first time since the tragedy.
He placed one rose on each of the stones at the campus memorial honoring the victims. Houchens then put three roses in front of the center stone that features the motto: "We Will Prevail. We Are Virginia Tech." And he placed a final rose at Norris Hall, where 30 of the victims were shot.
Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer planned to put one more souvenir in that memorial after the Hokies' season-opening 17-7 victory Saturday over East Carolina.
"We're going to take the game ball and put it over by the (memorial)," Beamer said. "We need to make sure that's acceptable and at least leave it there for a while. I'm not sure exactly how we're going to do the whole thing, but I'm going to get our seniors and they're going to carry it over there. We're going to get that done."
That provided the most fitting tribute to this most emotional of days.
Virginia Tech's season opener provided the type of catharsis this campus had awaited all summer. After four months of mourning, Hokie Nation needed a reason to cheer.
"We knew we weren't just playing for ourselves," said junior cornerback Victor Harris, whose 17-yard interception return with 3:07 left in the first half put the Hokies ahead for good. "We weren't just playing for our university. We were playing for the community and the victims."
The evidence of the close relationship between this community and its football team was everywhere.
Virginia Tech 17, East Carolina 7
Offensive player of the game: Virginia Tech tight end Sam Wheeler led all receivers with a career-high seven catches for 81 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown reception with 13:07 left in the game.
Defensive player of the game: East Carolina linebacker Quentin Cotton recorded 14 tackles, forced a fumble and had two stops behind the line of scrimmage. Cotton led an East Carolina defense that held Virginia Tech to
33 rushing yards on 31 carries.
Turning point: Virginia Tech trailed 7-3 until Victor "Macho" Harris picked off a Brett Clay pass, raced 17 yards and dove into the right corner of the end zone to put the Hokies ahead for good with 3:07 left in the second quarter.
Best call: We usually reserve this category for the best coaching move of the day, but we will use this space instead to honor East Carolina for donating $100,000 to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, which assists those affected by the April 16 shootings.
Best call, part two: East Carolina coach Skip Holtz deserves credit for helping keep the Pirates close even after suspending starting quarterback Rob Kass for violation of a team rule. The Pirates kept Virginia Tech's highly touted defense off balance in the first half by rotating Clay, Patrick Pinkney and Dwayne Harris at quarterback.
Surprise performance: Pinkney, no relation to former Pirates quarterback James Pinkney, showed he has bounced back from shoulder injuries that prevented him from playing the last two seasons. Pinkney went 14-of-25 for 115 yards and also had nine carries for 48 yards.
Signs of encouragement: Many of the signs that fans brought to the ESPN "GameDay" studio across from Lane Field didn't include Virginia Tech logos. The signs instead thanked schools that offered emotional or financial support in the wake of the April 16 tragedy. Virginia Tech junior Caroline Ryan included the logos of about two dozen schools in her sign before she finally ran out of room. "We wanted to get everyone we could," Ryan said, "but it just wasn't possible."
What's next: The Hokies will have to upgrade their offense significantly to have a chance of winning next week at second-ranked LSU. East Carolina is home the next two weeks against North Carolina and Southern Mississippi.
Etc.: Virginia Tech defensive end Orion Martin and linebacker Cam Martin became the first brothers to start together for Virginia Tech since defensive tackles Jonathan and Kevin Lewis did it in 2003. … The song that accompanied a pregame video honoring the April 16 victims was "Walk Humbly Son" by Eddie from Ohio, a Northern Virginia band whose lead singer is Virginia Tech graduate Julie Murphy Wells. … Eddie Royal became Virginia Tech's all-time career punt return leader Saturday with 904 yards.
Mourners visiting the campus memorial Saturday could find a maroon-and-orange pom-pon next to one memorial stone and a "Let's Go Hokies" banner that appeared under another. Virginia Tech students started lining up Friday at 4 p.m. to get the best spots in front of ESPN's "GameDay" studio the following morning.
Ph.D. student Ricky Castles stood outside the studio holding a sign that included the slogan "Win For 32" along with the names of each victim. His face was painted maroon with an orange "B" on each cheek in honor of Brian Bluhm, a graduate student who bought season tickets with Castles each of the last few years before getting killed on April 16.
Castles acknowledged that the events of the last four months made this far from the typical football Saturday in Blacksburg.
"There's a different air in the atmosphere," Castles said.
The sellout crowd's reactions in the minutes leading up to the game reflected the roller coaster of emotions this community has experienced over the last four months.
When a video tribute to the victims of the shootings aired on the scoreboard, the sellout crowd of 66,233 was almost silent. The crowd finally erupted when the video closed with a clip from Virginia Tech distinguished professor Nikki Giovanni's stirring presentation of her "We Are Virginia Tech" poem from a campus memorial service last spring.
By the time the opening notes of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" signaled the team's impending arrival, Virginia Tech fans were bouncing up and down in their seats and making more noise than ever.
"In the beginning of the game, standing in the tunnel, there was an energy like I've never felt before in my four years playing," senior offensive tackle Duane Brown said. "Just seeing the fans jumping and screaming, I'd never had an adrenaline rush like that."
The Hokies didn't give the fans much reason to cheer in the early going.
Virginia Tech turned the ball over on two of its first three possessions and trailed late in the first half. The Hokies struggled to run the ball all day, as they gained 33 yards on 31 carries against an East Carolina defense that allowed 145 rushing yards per game last year.
"We didn't put on the show we wanted to," said quarterback Sean Glennon, who finished 22-of-33 for 245 yards despite throwing an interception on his first passing attempt. "I remember the (New Orleans) Saints when they first played in the Superdome after (Hurricane) Katrina. They put on a show. I was hoping for the same thing here, but we just weren't sharp on both sides of the ball, especially the offense. It wasn't the game we'd been dreaming about the last couple of months."
Glennon knows how much this season means to everyone associated with Virginia Tech.
This grieving community remembers how the New York Yankees responded after the 9/11 tragedy, and how the Saints united New Orleans last season. Virginia Tech fans can only imagine what a national championship could do for this campus.
"It would be incredible," said Jim Berkson, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences. "We've had the roughest four months with everything that's happened. Nothing's going to heal that or change that or bring back those people or take that one day away from us, but we need to move forward - and (a national title) would help. It would be nice to have something to cheer."
If that seems like an awful lot of pressure to put on a bunch of college students, the Hokies insist they won't let this burden overwhelm them. Harris repeated the message that defensive coordinator Bud Foster sent to each of his players.
"If we get distracted by all these emotions and all this other stuff, we aren't going to get the job done," Harris said. "That's going to let the community down. If we just focus on football and get the job done, we'll lift the community."
That businesslike approach is helping Virginia Tech move forward, one rose and one win at a time.