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It's about football, not a tragedy

August 30, 2007|David Teel | Newport News (Va.) Daily Press

Virginia Tech's football team commences its 2007 journey at No. 9 in the Associated Press poll. Fair enough.

The Hokies are stacked on defense, flawed on offense and recast on special teams.

But let's be clear: Although the season promises to be memorable, and although legions will consider Tech a sentimental favorite -- America's Team for the cliche-minded -- the Hokies will win and lose on their merit.

Many will frame the season otherwise.

Success will mean the team was destined to heal a campus still coping with the mass murders of April 16.

Disappointment will mean the pressures were too profound.

Such portraits will be lazy, simplistic and just plain inaccurate. They will exaggerate sports and minimize life.

Please, don't misunderstand. Football is the centerpiece of Virginia Tech athletics, a beacon for hundreds of thousands of fans. The home opener Saturday against East Carolina will be poignant, and championship contention would lift the university during this difficult time.

"Tech people are looking to rally around something now," Coach Frank Beamer said. "It's there. I don't know if it's a burden, but it's there."

Scores with no connection to Virginia Tech also will embrace the Hokies. But no victory on the field, ascension in the polls or sappy ESPN montage can fill the voids gouged by those 32 murders.

And no team or individual should be asked or expected to do so. Those voids are forever, and only time, grace and perspective will ease the accompanying pain.

Beamer, a Virginia Tech fixture, seems to get it.

"We understand how large some of these things are," he said. "But it comes back to [the team] preparing every day and keeping it in the present."

Will skittish quarterback Sean Glennon make better decisions? Are the untested kickers and jury-rigged offensive line ready for a schedule that includes Louisiana State, Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Boston College? Will such staples as tailback Branden Ore, cornerback Brandon Flowers and linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi improve upon their exceptional 2006 performances?

Those questions and answers will chart the Hokies' course. Not divine inspiration or intervention. Just football ability.

"We've got to bring something back to Hokie Nation," Hall said.

No they don't. All anyone should ask of this or any team is honest, selfless effort.

Remember the 2001 World Series? After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, millions adopted the New York Yankees.

But emotion and good wishes didn't carry the Yankees to the Series. Such future Hall of Famers as Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre did.

And the pressures of bringing a championship to their wounded city didn't cause the Yankees to lose.

The Yankees lost because the Arizona Diamondbacks had pitchers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Because the Yankees' .183 batting average was the lowest ever in a seven-game World Series.

Then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, ubiquitous during the Series with his Yankees cap and jacket, told New York Times columnist George Vecsey there was value in the defeat.

"It gives the city a sense of reality, what you can accomplish," he said. "This is a city that just got hit with the worst attack in the history of our country, but the people hung in there."

So did the Yankees, but there was no sporting fairy tale to counter real-world tragedy. Rivera, baseball's premier closer, gave up a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 7.

Remember last season's NFL playoffs? In their first year back in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, the Saints made a stirring run to the NFC championship game.

Not because of some blessed bayou mojo. Because Drew Brees, surrounded by such talents as Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and Jammal Brown, became a Pro Bowl quarterback. Because kicker John Carney missed only two field goals, and rookie Coach Sean Payton was ready for prime time.

Having the Saints in the Super Bowl would have been Louis Armstrong-cool. But the Bears hammered them, 39-14, in the NFC title game. Not because of ethereal burdens. Because of four turnovers and the Bears' punishing defense.

"The hurt we have now will go away," Payton told the New Orleans Times-Picayune afterward.

"But there are a lot of people back home, who were a big part of this season, who experienced a greater pain that won't go away."

As it is at Virginia Tech. Yes, this will be a unique season, but Beamer's mandate to his team is not.

"Let's go represent Virginia Tech the very best we can."

On their merit. Win or lose.

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