South endzone of Lane Stadium in 2000; photo courtesy

Sneaking onto Lane Stadium’s sidelines

Sneaking into football venues is an American tradition.  John Madden’s account of infiltrating 49ers’ games is an historical tableau unto itself: hitchhiking and street car rides, his attending buddy John Robinson (who himself would coach the LA Rams and Southern Cal), spying the beat security and running the gates three hours before kickoff to watch grizzled men with raw hands and fake teeth pummel each other.  I can’t say my sneak-story holds a candle to Madden’s, especially since the game I surreptitiously entered was a free exhibition, and for an accomplice I had a legal guardian.  But then again, I think my tale holds a few points of distinction.

I’ll tell you right now that it was either the ’97 or ’98 vintage of Virginia Tech’s Maroon-White spring game we attended, but even after reading write-ups for both I can’t be certain as to which it actually was.   Memory’s a fickle thing.  I wasn’t much of a college football fan then, much less a Virginia Tech fan.  Living about 30 miles away from the campus I’d felt suffocated by the school’s relentless representation in southwest Virginia.  So my dad’s idea of heading to Blacksburg for the annual intrasquad scrimmage was an afternoon diversion and a chance to watch some live football, but not much else.  I don’t even think I knew my dad rooted for Tech—I’d considered him an agnostic in terms of fandom, though it turns out I had misinterpreted his low-key style when it came to enjoying frivolous things.

South side of Lane Stadium, 2000; photo courtesy

The Lane Stadium you see today is a bit different from the late 90’s model, as the team then was on the verge of becoming a nationally-known power.  Most pertinent to my story is the fact that where today the stadium’s a closed ring of towering seats that create a concrete echo-bowl, fourteen or so years ago the south endzone was just a concave patch of grass with piddly bleachers, a few trees, and some chainlink fence that was more for defining boundaries than it was keeping people out.  I saw some people moving towards the main gates at the north end of the stadium, though we veered towards this less-developed patch.

“I think the entrance is over that way,” I said.

“Let’s go on around this side.”

Then we were inside the stadium—literally inside it, because we were walking the edge of the endzone.  I didn’t know the names then, but we’d crossed the plane from Lane Stadium to Worsham Field.  We were on the sideline with the Virginia Tech Hokies.  The Maroon and White squads were already clamoring around the endzone to either complete or confound a scoring drive.  It was pretty safe to say the few thousand people in the stands didn’t have a view as interesting as ours.

“What if they kick us out?” I asked after we’d edged closer to the ten yard line, and then the twenty.

“We’ll just say you’re a recruit here visiting.”

To the theory’s benefit, I recall that I was proudly wearing the year’s latest round of football shirts from my alma mater.  To the theory’s detraction, my alma mater was single-A Glenvar High, and I was somewhat unimposing even for a student from such a small school—let’s say 5’11” and a buck-fifty when well-fed, hydrated, and in cleats and helmet, and so lacking in natural athleticism that I played line despite my stature.

“I’ll have to tell them I’m a kicker,” I said, not realizing I’d probably be the smallest kicker ever recruited by VT, and also one who’d have a hard time kicking the broad side of a barn, much less kicking a ball into it.

Beyond the thrill of walking through the endzone and our pieces of conversation, I can’t say I remember anything too specific about the scrimmage.  Memory’s a fickle thing.  I remember being a bit scared the whole time, figuring a sheriff’s deputy or state trooper was inbound to escort us out.  I remember a blur of jerseys with numbers that didn’t mean a thing to me, and a few sentences trying to figure out who was who.  Talking about those two players with the weird names that began with a ‘P’ (Pegues and Prioleau—and I’m not 100% sure if it actually happened then, since we’ve had the same conversation a few times over the years.)  I don’t remember much speaking because we’re both quiet during games.  For us, a calm place with a good all-22 view and leg room is where it’s at.  Nosebleeds and a patch of empty seats?  Priceless.

I wish I’d written about it right after I got home, especially since we didn’t have any pictures. Until now, the only narrative I’d produced regarding that day was actually made on the Lane Stadium sidelines: I came up with a convoluted alter ego should I have needed to bluff my way into resembling an expert on the art of the field goal. It was a perfect afternoon and I should’ve known my memory couldn’t begin to do it justice.  In retrospect, the perfection was probably why I didn’t put the afternoon to paper.  I dwelled too much on the disappointments of life.  Probably still do.

I talked with my dad this past Father’s Day about his recollections.  We usually chat about the game every time a new season rolls around, but it’s pretty much limited to one of us saying to the other “Remember that spring game?” and then laughing.  He reminded me that we’d arrived late and the game was already underway.  Our turn towards the south endzone was a “what the heck” moment on his part, decided on the fly.  He seemed to remember walking through an open, vehicle-sized gate in the fence, and reminded me that when we got inside the squads were piling into each other at the near endzone.  We didn’t move closer until they were back at midfield; Frank Beamer and another coach had glanced at us a few times when we started making our way downfield, but that was it.

He also remembered Nick Sorensen (who became a journeyman special teamer in the NFL) playing safety.  I vaguely remember him a little at QB—he stuck out in my mind for having long hair—but that could just be other games or years intruding.  The weather was overcast, but he didn’t remember rain.  He remembered Prioleau running the ball, but going by position it was more likely to be Pegues (imagine that.)  Neither of us recall the score or who scored, which would be a help since the ’97 game was one-sided, and the ’98 game a mutual offensive struggle.

What we did remember was easily enough to cement it as our best shared gameday at VT.  That said, it only competes with a sour loss to BC in 2003 that was made worse by an annoying bit of school color seated behind us, and a blowout over a Duke a few years later where we got to the stadium way too early and spent the morning eating our way through town from the Farmer’s Market to Joe’s Diner.  From that game I remember recognizing a gap exchange problem during the game, a student in front of us insisted on repeatedly calling a single-high defense “Cover 2,” and a Duke fan predicting a heckler would eat his words come basketball season, and not much else.

Despite not knowing exactly when it happened, I rank that game with two other days: a weekend jaunt to the Virginia Highlands Festival with my mom, and the day I proposed to my wife by the Cascades’ frozen falls.  I’d say all three are just about perfect memories.  I still have an uncashed check I won for a writing contest from the festival, so I can peg that event perfectly in space and time.  I’m also 1-for-1 in nuptial attempts, so the proposal bit has a timestamp, too.

But then, maybe vagueness enhances the Maroon-White game.  The only things clearly affixed in our skulls are the important aspects and emotions.  If I’m lucky enough to live so long, all the details of things I’ve held dear will fade.  That game will likely be one of the last to dim because it is already distilled down to its essentials—were it a “Wild Turkey” memory (as would befit the Hokies), it’d come from a well-aged, single-barrel batch of limited size—an American Spirit, perhaps.  I’ll even argue that the memory is well-aged from time, and drew flavor from other memories of family and fandom.  If there hadn’t been a Michael Vick or if I’d spent my undergrad years at a liberal arts college in the snowbelt, the game wouldn’t seem so special.  The same would be the case if my dad didn’t routinely make weekend treks to my house to watch the Hokies and eat barbecued chicken until we both look bloated.

Regardless of why or to what degree, that game was a fixture moment for me.  I suppose I’ve hedged by finally putting my thoughts on it to paper, and by finally searching for supporting details.  Whatever this transcription means, it’s trivial.    What’s important was a special day spent with my dad.   I hope anyone reading this has had a few similar days of their own.

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