When the buzzer sounded on the Virginia Tech men's basketball team's 77-72 win over third ranked Duke and the students (gingerly) lept down to the floor to celebrate with their team, I was filled with emotions that I couldn't quite put into words.
Sports are important, in part, because they act as both a portal away from a normal day's problems and a mirror in which an average fan can see part of their soul.
That's why so many teams end up adopting the personality of their city. The Grit and Grind Memphis Grizzlies are held up as the gold standard of local sports marketing, but at its height, it was way more than t-shirts and slogans. Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, and squad were tough. They were loud. They were mean. They embodied everything the people of Memphis saw in themselves in order to get through an average day.
Memphis might be the most obvious example, but it crops up everywhere. New Orleans Saints games are one part party, one part community building. The Pittsburgh Steelers represent the kind of toughness the city hopes to embody. Cleveland's prodigal son LeBron James fed into both the passions and insecurities buried deeply beneath Lake Erie.
College teams are a little different. With players cycling through every two-to-four years and most coaches sticking around only a bit longer, fans feel an identity of pride with their schools, but come to see each year's team as individual snapshots within that pride. For someone who's supported a school for a decade (or more), each season feels like looking back at a yearbook.
It not only brings back memories of the specific season, but it takes you on a journey about where you personally were at that point in your life. You don't just think of Michael Vick's magical run in '99, but what you were doing that fall. If you were in school at the time, you think of the way Blacksburg looked then as opposed to now. If not, 1999 becomes "the year I ____", as the important moments in your normal life blend together with the important moments of your fandom.
Maybe it's weird to see your life through shades of fan, but isn't that kind of the point? If sports really are an escape from the everyday weight life puts on you, doesn't it make sense that the two strands of your world begin to intertwine? We don't watch sports in a vacuum. Our passion bleeds into our anxieties. Our self-confidence, vacillating between various highs and lows, latches onto the elation of a win (or worse, the devastation of a loss).
Most of this mixing leads to everything wrong with college sports fans. Someone taking a break from their bad day just to eviscerate an 18-year-old recruit online. College athletes are subject to hurtful sneers, personal agendas, and downright inhumane conduct.
I can't defend any of that. Yet I still love college sports. I love it because my parents love it. I love it because grew up in it. I love it because I can define my life around it.
In February of 2015 I was a broke 24 year old, a year and a half out of college, trying to figure it out. I was living with my girlfriend's parents, making eight dollars an hour and hoping to piece together some sort of living in sports media. I had no idea what I was doing, and it showed. Frequently.
That month I covered a 10-win Tech team's loss to a Jahlil Okafor-led Blue Devil squad that would go on to win a national title. It may seem routine on the surface, but the Hokies threw every punch they could muster, resulting in one final chance to pull a program defining upset:
Glad Jalen Hudson didn't get two free throws here to potentially beat Duke. Definitely wasn't fouled. #Hokies pic.twitter.com/LVUyaibJMA— Sammy Eanes (@sammyeanes) February 26, 2015
It was clear that Tech was a young team that had no idea what it was doing. But there was a foundation there, and they needed to build on it.
On New Year's Eve 2016, I was ready to make a change. I silently resolved to myself that I'd figure out a way to change paths, get better, and figure life out both professionally and personally. At 26, I was ready to become an adult.
That same day, as I was filling myself with stereotypical year-ending motivation, the Hokies decided that they, too, were ready to grow up:
I applied to grad school and proposed to my now-wife. Tech beat Duke, and made their first NCAA Tournament in a decade.
In February of 2018 I was a stressed out grad student looking for a job, trying to help plan a wedding, and doing my best to remember to consume more than coffee and self doubt. Tech's tournament chances were on the bubble, and they struggled mightily with the Blue Devils all game long. They trailed the entire second half, until they didn't:
The win took them off the bubble for good, and they went dancing for the second time in a row.
It's weird. I know that my adult life doesn't really mirror the program's growth. If anything I'm just projecting the feelings from my personal life onto a group of guys who I've never once met outside of a professional setting.
But isn't that kind of the point? Isn't that the best part about being a fan? Being able to feel pride while watching a team you feel like you've grown up alongside?
That's why I was filled with emotion when the horn sounded. Not because there's any real correlation between my life and the basketball program's. But because I think of the first time the Williams administration took on Krzyzewski, relying on a group of freshmen and misfit toys to take multiple future first round picks to overtime.
I think about that game a lot. More than I should, really. But I can't help but think back to the winter of 2015, and feel a bubbling sense of pride for how far this program has come.
And if you think about it, it's a pretty foolish thing to feel. Only Buzz and Ahmed Hill remain in Blacksburg from that roster. Most of the guys who made this win happen (Kerry Blackshear Jr., Wabissa Bede, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ty Outlaw, Isaiah Wilkins) weren't around in '15.
But it's the type of compounding pride that makes this win so great. It makes Blackshear's metamorphosis into a superstar even more profound (he finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, by the way). It makes Outlaw's game-sealing three pointer even more fulfilling, and Hill's A+ all-around performance even more heart warming. It makes the squad's perseverance after Justin Robinson's injury—not to mention their ability to find success after completely changing the way they play—even more incredible.
Sure, Duke was without Zion Williamson. But that doesn't take anything away from the statement win. This isn't just a team to be proud of, but it's a program to be proud of. And the growth we've all witnessed makes each one of these victories over the Blue Devils just a little sweeter.
And again, maybe I'm partially projecting because I can't help but think about that dumbass 24-year-old who was sitting on press row, with no idea how much better things were going to get.
But isn't that how we felt in '15?
Didn't we just have blind hope that some miracle worker and a ragtag group of players would save Virginia Tech basketball from the realm of being an unmitigated disaster? There were no grand plans of 20-win seasons and potential double byes in the ACC Tournament. We had no clue how much better this program would become in just a few short seasons. We were all just bemoaning a no-call on a Jalen Hudson baseline drive at the tail end of an 11 win season.
And by all of us, I mean all of us.
"I didn't go home (after the Duke loss in '15), I went back to the office and I stayed up all night," Williams told Jon Laaser and Mike Burnop in an incredible radio interview postgame.
"And I watch that clip, every time we play (Duke). And you know when I watch it, I'm not mad anymore. I'm thankful that what should have been done, wasn't done. Because that's an example, of what has transpired in the program. And that night, there were a lot of royal blue t-shirts in the stands. And now people are texting, 'hey coach, you got any tickets?' Nah. The wagon's full. The wagon's full."
We don't know when Robinson's coming back. We don't know how long Williams will stay in Blacksburg. We don't know what the postseason has in store for them. But that shouldn't keep us from taking stock of exactly how incredible this season has been, how great of a win this was, or how marvelous a journey the last five seasons have been.
And when you look at it, when you look deep into the program's soul, there is something pretty damn relatable about the hard work they've put in to get here.
Maybe that's why the wagon's so full.