Wednesday, July 9th, 1997
A Long, Sad Chapter of Hokie Football History Finally Ends
Yesterday, in The Roanoke Times, I saw the best headline about the Blacksburg Brawl that I've seen the whole time this sordid story has played itself out in the press. It said "Last of 9 Tech Cases Resolved."
Yes, that's it. Nearly a year after the story broke, we're finally done with the Blacksburg Brawl, and we can start putting it behind us. For the record, on Monday Nat Williams was acquitted of misdemeanor assault in connection with The Brawl, while Sean Sullivan was found guilty on one of two assault charges (not guilty of assaulting Tech track athlete Hilliard Sumner, but guilty of assaulting Sumner's friend Jonathon Nelson). In an unrelated trial, Brad Baylor was found not guilty of felony abduction in a case involving a UVa student who claimed that Baylor held him captive and forced him to drink alcohol to unconsciousness.
It has been a long year, and most Hokie fans have changed in ways we would not have preferred. After a year of watching the Blacksburg Brawl, the charges that resulted from it, and the subsequent trials being trumpeted as national headlines, Hokie fans are weary, chagrined, and suddenly more sympathetic to the plight of fans of "renegade" teams like the Miami Hurricanes and Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Frankly, I never wanted to know what it was like to have the nation perceive your team as a program that is out of control. Now that I do know what it's like, I can report that it's a feeling I can do without, and the long-term effect for me is that I'm no longer the "Go Hokies!" drone that I used to be. I've come to understand that you run a risk when you place your own personal pride in your university on the backs of a group of young men, many of them just kids, that you don't even know. Hero worship is a risky thing, as many of us discovered in this past year. When you trust people you know nothing about, some of them are going to let you down.
For every young man that you can respect and admire - the names Ken Oxendine, Brandon Semones, Shawn Scales, and Loren Johnson come to mind - there are others who simply don't understand the tremendous responsibility of wearing the jersey of a major college football team, and what it means to represent the thousands of fans and alumni of that school. Some players do see the bigger picture, and they understand that they are only a small part of the whole of Virginia Tech, while others get caught up in their own personal weaknesses, conflicts, and self-indulgent thoughts. The next thing you know, you've got an arrest record that is way too long and a university and athletic department faculty that feels it needs to step in and assert control.
I'm glad it's over. I'm disappointed that it took away much of the enjoyment of a great football season, a football season that saw many things to cheer about and many things to marvel at. I, for one, will never forget the sight of Jim Druckenmiller standing tall in the pocket against the fearsome Nebraska Cornhuskers. I'm upset that my memory of Druck in the Orange Bowl is tainted with the memory of a handful of Tech players running around the field with the numbers of suspended teammates taped on the back of their helmets. I'm angry that I couldn't give myself over to the hysteria of an Alliance Bowl bid like I did the year before, when the Hokies went to the Sugar Bowl.
So, yes, it's been a long year, and the bulk of the bad stuff is behind us. We still have to deal with the upcoming rape trial(s) of former players Brian Edmonds and James Crawford, which I have heard are scheduled for September. And it seems we'll never be done with the Tony Morrison / James Crawford / Christy Brzonkala affair, at least not as long as N.O.W. is bankrolling Brzonkala's publicity-hound lawyer, Eileen Wagner.
The Blacksburg Brawl, however, is history. Although a number of arrests had been posted by football players prior to the Brawl, they could be marked off as a series of unrelated events. Some were crimes committed by bad apples, and some were simply minor infractions that were blown out of proportion by the police and the press.
But when the story of the Brawl broke at the end of last summer, the image of a string of unrelated events coalesced and formed the image of a pack of football players running a track athlete down and beating up him and his friend. We may never know what really happened that night (do even the people who were there know?), but the charges that were brought against the players and the stories that were run in the press depicted the Tech football players who were there that night almost as a pack of wild animals hunting game. Right or wrong, it's a nasty, unpleasant picture, and it is an image that haunted us for a nearly a year as a string of long, drawn-out investigations, charges, and trials were very publicly played out in the newspapers and on television. The Brawl will continue to haunt us, at least as long as the public can maintain their collective consciousness, or until it gets diverted to the next scandal at the next university in line.
We found out through all this that the Virginia Tech community will stick together through thick and thin. The VT machine creaked and groaned and showed some gaps at the seams, but it never collapsed. Tech fans finally had their chance to return the loyalty Frank Beamer has shown to the school, and they, meaning the fans, delivered in spades as the beloved coach was questioned by a few but was never seriously threatened. He has a saying: "Never get too high during the good times, and never get too low during the bad times." Unfortunately, the coach and his fans got to practice that statement this year, and I think we did okay.
Most Tech fans remain loyal, season tickets sales are up (again), we managed to have a decent recruiting year, and the NCAA never reared its ugly head around Blacksburg. Nearly all of the players involved in the incidents are gone, including a couple who were two- (or three-) time losers. It was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who coined the phrase, "That which doesn't kill me only makes me stronger," and in the case of Virginia Tech football, his statement rings true.
I have one simple wish: a season free from off-field troubles. I don't care if the team we put on the field wins 5 games or 12 games, I just want to experience the feeling of picking up the paper day after day and not seeing our players in the headlines for the wrong reason. I think it will happen, but forgive me if I'm a little gun shy, and if I'm looking over my shoulder this season.
Because for this lifelong Hokie fan, it's been a long year.