It was so muddy.
It was kind of mud that weighs down your boots and waits for you to chip it away days later and it was clinging to my soles as I slide through the trees.
It was my first time walking through Stadium Woods. Previously my father had always led me through campus on game day, but he was away on a church trip and my grandfather had assumed his duties. We’d parked in a neighborhood and began this curious hike with me completely lost.
But all at once the trees parted and Lane Stadium smacked me in the face. This would become the path I would take friends on to get to games for years to come.
That day we witnessed what I believe to be the most important game in Virginia Tech’s history of playing football as the 0-2 Hokies defeated No. 17 Miami 13-7. It was the first time Tech had beaten the Hurricanes and the last Tech game my grandfather, 78 year old at the time, watched live.
More importantly, I believe it was the day many of us realized Frank Beamer had turned the football team we’d long followed into a football program.
Tech would of course not lose another contest that year and cap the season with a Sugar Bowl victory over Texas, the third bowl in what now stands as a streak of 23.
As Beamer heads towards bowl 23 and his finale as at the Hokies’ helm, plenty of folks have lined up to give thanks for his work at Tech. Others have questioned why a football coach, who earns a better paycheck than most, deserves such admiration.
Perhaps the latter is with good cause, I mean, Beamer has long since paid for his last drink in Blacksburg.
But it’s more than football program the fella from Fancy Gap built in Blacksburg. It’s more than a big stadium or an increase in local hotel bookings and restaurant sales each fall weekend. It’s an identity. Not just for a team or a university, but for an entire region. A region that needed something homegrown in which to take pride.
My earliest memories of Tech football don’t include Beamer. Actually, they don’t really even involve football.
My earliest memory is of hugging the Hokie bird in the East stands and the outfit not having gloves. I saw fingernail polish on the Hokie bird’s nails and was pissed no one cared to inform me the Hokie bird was a girl. They were so “ew” at the time.
My father, along with both his parents, had gone to Tech, so we always kept up with the football team. It wasn’t the way folks keep up with the team now though, it was much more like following the local high school team you just hope beats the cross-town rival each year.
When Beamer took over as head coach at Tech for us it was almost like an old family friend was running the show. My grandfather had worked with Frank’s father at the Virginia Department of Transportation and my father would later work with Frank’s brother in a similar role. So for a time, it less Coach Beamer and more that Raymond’s son had taken over the Hokies.
My fellow elementary school students didn’t wear Tech colors, I can’t remember ever seeing a Hokies flag in a yard and the local sports section was often dominated by that other school in Charlottesville.
A change began when Tech entered the Big East and I can clearly remember my dad video taping Tech 23-43 loss to No. 1 Miami in ’92. I didn’t really understand his excitement then, but maybe he knew something big was on the horizon.
We didn’t attend any games in 1993, but we listened to each on them on the radio as we would drive back to Christiansburg from fixing up a house we were trying to sell in Rural Retreat each weekend. We watched the Independence Bowl on the TV in my parents’ bedroom and my dad promised season tickets for the following year as a reward for my help with the house.
This began a long stretch of memories in Lane Stadium, which were much clearer, and much more football oriented, than my earliest ones.
I was there that Thursday night when Ken Oxendine announced himself against West Virginia. I was there when Tech beat Miami for the first time. And I was there when fans stormed the field and lifted Beamer up after beating Boston College to celebrate the first undefeated season in school history.
I can remember earlier in that ’99 season watching Michael Vick and Shayne Graham pull off the miracle in Morgantown and later my father being surprisingly happy about the fight the team showed despite losing to Florida State in the national title game.
Kind of like the Gospel of John, I suppose their might not be enough books in the world to record all my memories and feelings during Beamer’s tenure at Tech.
Would my life have contain such memories and bonds with family, friends and strangers without Beamer? Maybe, but probably not.
Would a kid who was made fun of in middle school for wearing a Hokies Starter jacket (the sweet pull-over kind) grow up to see such demand for apparel that a special Tech section in the local Wal-Mart was created? Doubtful.
Would we as southwest Virginians have stopped describing where we are from to outsiders in terms of our proximity to Roanoke or Bristol and instead just say, “Near Virginia Tech?” Not a chance.
So yeah, thanks Coach Beamer.
Tech will soon have another coach, but they will never have another Frank Beamer.