- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. — It has been more than eight months since Virginia Tech was forever transformed. It was April 16 when the serene campus became the site of one of the deadliest shooting rampages in American history.

Thirty-three people were dead after a gunman killed two students in a dorm before moving to Norris Hall, a science and engineering building, where he chained some doors shut and continued his calculated assault by murdering 30 more students and faculty members before taking his own life.

“I was in my apartment, and I saw it on TV,” Virginia Tech receiver Eddie Royal said. “When the numbers started to pile up, I was in shock. I didn’t want to believe it. It really felt like a dream because you didn’t think something like that could happen here so close by.”

The tragedy, known in Virginia Tech circles as “4-16,” no longer dominates everything at the school as it did last spring and into the fall. However, it is never far from the thoughts of those who experienced that horror.

There are countless stickers on cars with a ribbon in the Hokies’ colors of maroon and burnt orange and the letters “VT” inside it. Other simply have “4-16” emblems on their vehicles and other places as the university tries to deal with and move on from the darkest moment in its history.

“You are reminded all the time,” quarterback Sean Glennon said. “I don’t know if you think about it in-depth like you used to. There are ribbons everywhere. ‘Remember 4-16’ is everywhere.”

Spring football practice was suspended after the shootings, and the annual spring game was canceled as relatively trivial things like sports no longer seemed important.

The Hokies returned to fall practice a changed team. That will be on display again tonight when they face Kansas in the Orange Bowl; as they have in every game this season, the players will wear patches on their jerseys as a reminder of that day.

“It has definitely changed my outlook on life,” Royal said. “After that day, I never appreciated my friends and family more. It really opens your eyes to what life is all about — about giving, about loving. That day was a tragedy you will never forget. That is what this patch is. It means we will never forget you and how you affected our lives and how you changed our lives for the better. We learned a lot from those people. Even the survivors are so strong. We learned from them too. I am in awe of them.”

The Hokies could not erase the past, but they felt they could be a part of the healing process. There long has been a ferocious passion for Virginia Tech football, but perhaps the team has never meant as much to a community as it does right now.

“It has been obvious that our Tech fans have never been better,” said coach Frank Beamer, whose team fills 66,233-seat Lane Stadium every game. “They have been more supportive and more together than they have ever been. We never talked about it as a football team, but I think everybody knew about it. I think everybody wanted this year to turn out special for Virginia Tech.”

And the Hokies delivered.

Virginia Tech won the ACC championship and earned a No. 3 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series. The Hokies have an 11-2 record and can establish a school record for wins in a season with a victory tonight.

“They needed something to cheer about,” safety D.J. Parker said. “We knew football down here at Virginia Tech could do that. We wanted to put on a show for Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. It means a lot to me. Spring practice got cut short. We wanted to dedicate the season to the 32 victims. We won an ACC title for those victims.”

The country rallied around the Hokies. Washington Nationals players donned Virginia Tech baseball caps for a game. Rival Virginia sent a signed banner that hangs in the team house in Merryman Center declaring a newfound unity. Even tonight’s opponent wore Hokies colors.

“It’s funny because just last semester our whole athletic department was wearing Virginia Tech shirts after the tragedy,” Kansas safety Darrell Stuckey said. “God has blessed everything that has happened there because they persevered though that and came back.”

The Hokies admit the added attention was a distraction when it came to playing football. ESPN sent its “GameDay” crew for an otherwise unappealing opener against East Carolina, which served as an unofficial return to normalcy at the university.

Virginia Tech needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to ensure a 17-7 victory in a game many felt would be lopsided.

“You have to be able to separate football from other emotions,” Royal said. “The game is hard enough.”

Then second-ranked LSU showed no mercy the next week in a 48-7 thumping of the Hokies. However, Virginia Tech rebounded with five straight wins to play its way back into the national title race.

That disappeared after the Hokies blew a 10-0 fourth-quarter lead against then No. 2 Boston College at soggy Lane Stadium. Quarterback Matt Ryan led the Eagles to two touchdowns in the final 2:11, with the game-winner coming with 11 seconds remaining.

“Somebody sent me an e-mail the other day and said even after the devastating loss where you feel like you have the game won that our team kind of showed the same things as our university — and maybe was a leader to the university,” Beamer said. “We didn’t give in. We battled back, and in the end we won the ACC championship. That is how I think our university has handled it too. We battled back, and we are tighter, closer and more unified than ever.”

Virginia Tech brings a five-game winning streak — including a 30-16 victory in a rematch against Boston College in the ACC title game — into the Orange Bowl.

And the community ripped apart by the April 16 massacre now has something to celebrate in the New Year.

“It is kind of hard to even talk about football in the same sense as 4-16,” linebacker Cam Martin said. “I try to stay away from that because when I start talking about football on 4-16, I feel kind of selfish playing the sport. I can only imagine what those people went through and those families that are still living through it right now. Football means nothing compared to what those people went through. Even the people who didn’t die and their families, it doesn’t compare. Every time we are out there on the field we are playing for those people.”

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