After Tragedy, Hokies and Cavs Take Field as Virginians All
Saturday, November 24, 2007
As Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia prepare for what may be their most important football matchup ever, there is an unmistakable change in tenor to the fierce historic rivalry among fans.
Seven months after the massacre at Tech that claimed 32 lives plus the killer's, and the outpouring of support that came from other schools, including U-Va., boosters on both sides say the petty stereotypes that once divided them have largely been set aside.
"When people are losing lives, and lives are obviously changed forever, it just puts things in perspective," said Josh Seager, executive officer of Tech's marching band, which performed with U-Va.'s band last night in a show of unity.
Such a display of camaraderie is noteworthy, given past mutual hostility between hard-core fans. Two years ago, students recall, someone sneaked onto U-Va.'s field and spray-painted a "T" after Virginia's "V" logo. There were recurring screaming matches between opposing sides in stadium parking lots that sometimes came to blows. And there was the sense among Tech students that fans of U-Va. -- an institution founded by none other than Thomas Jefferson -- looked down their noses at the mountain-ensconced Hokies of Blacksburg. Hokies were "hicks"; Cavaliers were "snobs."
But after the shootings in April, something changed. U-Va. students and faculty members wrote condolence letters, held a candlelight vigil and even painted the campus's fabled Beta Bridge with a pro-Hokies phrase. Now students in both camps say they are more apt to think of themselves simply as Virginians.
And as Washington area alumni clog Route 29 on the way to today's noon game in Charlottesville, which will send one team to the Dec. 1 Atlantic Coast Conference championship in Jacksonville the focus of the rivalry has shifted, fans say.
"It's about the football game, period," said Greg Crapanzano, a U-Va. junior and member of the 'Hoo Crew, the student fan club, named after the school's unofficial mascot, the Wahoo.
Crapanzano, of Richmond, will wear his trademark orange tuxedo, complete with top hat and cane, at the game. "Win, lose or draw at Scott Stadium, I don't think you're going to see people cursing at other people . . . at all. . . . There's that respect, and definitely a sense of kinship," he said.
Each school still wants to win handily to retain the bragging rights for Virginia football and send its team to Florida. This year's outcome will play an unusually big role in determining both teams' postseason opportunities.
Tech, which struggled to a season-opening victory amid the media coverage of the Hokies' emotional return to the gridiron, is ranked eighth in the nation. U-Va. is ranked 16th. In recent decades, Tech, with about 23,000 undergraduates to U-Va.'s 13,000, has been the dominant team overall, with an all-time series record of 46-37-5, including wins in seven of the past eight faceoffs with Virginia.
Both teams are 9-2 headed into today's game, and U-Va.'s Cavaliers hold a slight historic edge against the Hokies at home, with a record of 18-17-3.
Tech and U-Va. are ubiquitous at the top of college wish lists for high school graduates in the Washington region. Tech is considered a top engineering school, and U-Va. is the most prestigious academic institution in the state.
Tech fans have not been shy about highlighting their team's athletic prowess, but U-Va.'s supporters -- the men traditionally clad in ties at games, the women in pearls -- have been known to reply with a nod to their "sophisticated" academic tradition by shouting, "Culture! Agriculture!" to draw a line between themselves and the students of rural Blacksburg.
"They have their ties and their wine at the games," said John Purdum of Vienna, a 2006 Tech alumnus. "You come to our games, and we have guys in camo and hunting hats. . . . We're more the blue-collar school."
After a pregame acknowledgment today of the rampage -- the details of which U-Va. officials would not divulge -- such teasing and chanting might be heard. But taunts are sure to be tempered by the realization that came rushing in after the most deadly mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history: that the two campuses have more in common than they might have been prone to admit.
Located 150 miles apart, Tech and U-Va. have deep roots in the state. Both were founded in the 19th century, and their first football showdown was in 1895 -- a 38-0 victory for U-Va. Although a heated rivalry has developed over the years, it is not hard to find alumni of one school who have friends and relatives who attended the other. Today, Washington area alumni on both sides-- dressed in team gear -- will probably be at the same bar, Bailey's Pub and Grille in Ballston.
When a gunman opened fire on Tech's campus April 16 before killing himself, a former U-Va. professor and the sister, father and cousin of three U-Va. students were among the dead.
After the massacre, U-Va. rallied to Tech's side. The school offered to send counselors and medical staff to Blacksburg, established a memorial fund and painted Beta Bridge with the message "Hoos for Hokies." It was a reminder that, whatever their differences, students of the two universities are family.
"We all love sports, but certainly there are more important things in life," said Curt Spear, an assistant county attorney in Prince William County and a U-Va. alumnus, who said his grandfather once held a touchdown record at Tech. He will hold a game party at his Woodbridge home with five or six U-Va. alumni.
"For those of us that grew up in Virginia, everybody has a lot of friends at the other school, and you know there are good people there," said Carrie Brown, 29, a U-Va. alumna from Vienna whose brother, Frank, attended Tech for two years before transferring to West Point.
"I think the shootings in April make you stop and think for a minute. . . . It makes you realize that it's really just a game, and we're all in this together."
Together, that is, apart from their respective efforts to run up the score today. Brotherly love aside, there's still a game to be played, and some things never change.
This week, the Beta Bridge displayed a spirited, more familiar message: "Go Hoos, Beat the Hokies."