Even as showdown with Kansas looms, Virginia Tech won't forget 32 killed in campus shooting

By TIM REYNOLDS, AP Sports Writer
December 30, 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring knew the question was coming, and swallowed hard.

The massacre of April 16 seems like so long ago, yet to the Hokies, the pain remains fresh and real.

"All I know is this," Stinespring said Sunday morning, pausing a couple seconds before continuing. "I think all of us have had our hearts broken before, or thought we had. But not until April 16 did I think any of us had truly felt what it meant to have your heart broken."

Virginia Tech has carried that anguish every day this season.

Now more than ever, the Hokies are the pride of Blacksburg, providing an occasional escape from the horrifying memory of a mentally disturbed student killing 32 students and professors on campus and then himself -- the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

It was the biggest news story in the nation this year and, combined with the stunning saga of former Virginia Tech quarterback and NFL star Michael Vick being sent to prison for his role in a dogfighting scandal, led to a more mentally arduous season than any team should ever have to endure.

Somehow, here the Hokies are, Atlantic Coast Conference champions again and set to meet No. 8 Kansas (11-1) in Thursday's Orange Bowl.

"The only real bright spot we had in Blacksburg after that tragedy was everyone was looking forward to football season, for a chance to get your minds off that and be around people with a lot in common," offensive lineman Duane Brown said. "Like loving Hokie football."

The fifth-ranked Hokies (11-2) have given their fans much to love this season.

The year began with an emotionally charged 17-7 home win over East Carolina, a victory replete with a tribute video, recognition of first responders who hurried to campus that morning, a moment of silence and a flyover by two F-15 fighter jets.

A week later, Virginia Tech was pounded at LSU, 48-7.

And many people wondered how much emotional strength the Hokies had left.

Plenty, it turns out.

"We were not going to let that break us," Stinespring said. "We were not going to let that be the telling story for this season. We were able to pick ourselves back up, as we did after April 16. We were able to rise back up again and we did, just as our university, just as our community, just as our student population, just as our state picked itself up again, we were able to do so and carry on."

AP - Dec 30, 1:32 pm EST
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Virginia Tech has only one other blemish this season, a 14-10 home loss to Boston College in which the Hokies blew a 10-point lead in the final 2:11.

Since then, Virginia Tech is 5-0, outscoring teams 174-75.

After what they've been through, a little football adversity clearly doesn't bother the Hokies one bit.

"It's so personal when it's your own university, people you may know and this, that and the other, and it had to be extremely tough on them," Kansas defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "Fortunately, I've never been near anything like that."

Kansas defensive lineman James McClinton's first thought when he realized the Jayhawks would play Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl?

"Dang," McClinton said.

Just like probably everyone in college football, McClinton felt for Virginia Tech when he learned of the events of April 16, and acknowledges that he's somewhat amazed at the way the Hokies have been able to fight through the emotional turmoil this season.

But when he heard about the matchup, McClinton immediately realized the storybook end to the Hokies' season would be for Virginia Tech to win Thursday night.

And he isn't about to let that happen without a fight.

"If they win, everybody's going to be happy and it's going to be a special moment for them," McClinton said. "And if we win, we're the bad guys. But man, I'm a team player, so I've got to help my team win the game."

Saturdays at Lane Stadium have always been raucous, so support there is nothing new.

But this year, Virginia Tech's players saw more maroon and burnt orange on the road than ever before.

Opposing players -- even from longtime archrival schools -- often wear "VT" ribbons in remembrance of April 16, and almost everywhere the Hokies go, fans and foes alike have something kind to say.

"This has brought everyone together," tailback Kenny Lewis Jr. said. "That's why you hear everyone saying, 'We are Virginia Tech."'


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