Photo courtesy of CrimeMuseum.org
A snowy spring Monday in Blacksburg, Va. turned tragic.
April 16, 2007 was a day that will forever be remembered in not just the Blacksburg and Virginia Tech community, but around the world.
That fateful day 14 years ago, all attention around the country turned to a small town in Southwest Virginia. Eyes were glued to the TV as folks watched in horror as one of the deadliest shootings in our nation’s history took place on the Virginia Tech campus.
That’s why they say today, “We are all Hokies.”
Every time I hear that phrase, I think back to a framed portrait in the breakroom of the offices of the Hokie Club located on the first floor of Lane Stadium.
You may have seen this portrait yourself; there’s plenty of copies out there.
In the portrait created by Lansing Cartoons, you can see a drawing of the Hokie Bird front and center, seated and teary eyed, grieving the events that just took place.
Behind him, the Virginia Cavalier rests his left hand on the Bird’s shoulder. The Radford Highlander and Old Dominion Monarch stand to his left for support. To the right stands the George Mason Patriot, the James Madison Duke Dog, and an individual representing the Tribe of William and Mary. The Virginia Commonwealth Ram hovers behind – all of these schools rivals from the commonwealth.
But for this day and for this day only, they are all Hokies.
When gunman Seung-Hui Cho struck down 32 innocent people — 27 students and five professors — it was hard to put in perspective what had really just happened.
West Ambler Johnston Hall, a residential hall, was Cho’s first striking point. He murdered two students there, before hitting his main target Norris Hall, a classroom building, where the other 30 victims perished a little more than two hours later.
I personally walked right past Norris Hall a couple weeks back, as I try to do every so often. The feeling never changes.
I get goosebumps every time I walk through those hallowed halls. I try to visit the memorial located in front of the adjacent Burruss Hall whenever I walk through the iconic drillfield on campus.
My friend lives in a dormitory located just feet away from West Ambler Johnston, or “West AJ.” It’s always the first thing that comes to mind when I gaze upon both buildings.
Everyone knows the story though, so I don’t need to retell it. I’m here to tell you about the cohesion the community felt and still feels today following this awful tragedy.
When that candlelight vigil was held on April 17, 2007 — just a day following the massacre — there was a sense of grievance, pain, and sadness. But there was also a feeling of unity and hopefully a sign of healing for what was to come.
That same day, a large gathering took place inside Cassell Coliseum, where President George W. Bush made a six-minute speech offering condolences and placing a hand on the Hokie community. Poet Nikki Giovanni also then made her famed “We are Virginia Tech” speech at the event — a quote that still is permanently tattooed in the brains of the Virginia Tech faithful to this day.
The first football game at Lane Stadium since the tragedy took place the following September when the No. 9 Hokies hosted the East Carolina Pirates. ESPN’s College Gameday even made a special trip up to Blacksburg for the contest.
The vibes outside the stadium before the season opener was normal. Burgers were flipped on the grill, footballs were being tossed, and beers were being chugged.
The game itself though, was more than just a game. It was about honoring and remembering. That’s what that ECU game was all about.
A moment of silence was held before the game, and 32 orange and maroon balloons were released into the sky just prior to kickoff in honor of those that were lost just five months earlier.
Virginia Tech ended up defeating the Pirates, 17-7. For the first time since April 16, Blacksburg had a reason to rejoice.
The Yankee Game
That following spring in 2008, the gesture of a lifetime was made by the owner of the New York Yankees. The late George Steinbrenner was so moved watching the events unfold on TV in Blacksburg, that he flew almost the entire Yankees’ roster up to Virginia Tech to play an exhibition game with the Hokies in the middle of spring training.
5,311 fans looked upon English Field on March 18, 2008 to watch one of the greatest franchises in sports take on a program that, at the time, hadn’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 2000. But that was far from the point.
Hokie starter Andrew Wells recently reflected on what he remembers from that game on the Gobble ‘Em Up Podcast. He recalled each and every detail from the 21 pitches he threw against the five hitters he faced.
The five? Two-time World Series Champion Johnny Damon, Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, now Minnesota Timberwolves owner Alex Rodriguez, and power-hitting Jason Giambi.
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He remembered how he nearly drilled Damon in the head on the first pitch, went 0-2 on Jeter and walked Abreu in a seven-pitch at-bat. Wells got out of a bases-loaded no-out jam nearly unscathed with a Rodriguez sacrifice fly preceding Giambi grounding into a 4-6-3 double play. Wells recalled the hot shot being “the hardest hit ball I’ve ever seen.”
The former draft pick of the Washington Nationals also said that he wouldn’t have had it any other way than to get into that jam. As it allowed him a chance to face more high-profile hitters and have memories to last a lifetime.
He knew he only had the first inning. This game meant everything to these Hokie players.
Wells also spoke about Rodriguez coming over to Virginia Tech’s dugout mid-game. He gave away signed bats, balls, and batting gloves to those who could guess his career accolades.
Other prolific names that played in that Yankee game in Blacksburg included star catcher Jorge Posada, Shelley Duncan, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, and even current Yankees’ outfielder Brett Gardner.
It was truly the game of a lifetime, and one I always will wish I was able to attend.
“We Will Prevail”
As many of us run the “3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance” today across the country, beaming with pride wearing our Hokie gear, it’s a time to truly reflect.
14,500 did so in Blacksburg the last time this event was held in person in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’d be willing to bet that more than 20,000 ran this event on their own over the last few days.
Poet Nikki Giovanni perhaps said it best on the floor of a packed Cassell Coliseum:
“We are the Hokies. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.”
Prevailed we have, and continue we will.
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