(photo: Eric Gunther)
Hokie Stone Resilience
By Mark Reif
The final five games of the 2020 Virginia Tech Football season were the most
stressful time I've endured as a Hokie. Over an arduous five weeks where the team lost four straight, an
enormous struggle took place where the program just tried to stay afloat through unending
disappointment. Time after time, the Hokies would flash moments on both sides of the ball that arguably
could compete with anyone in the country, yet still come away with crushing losses. In the end, surviving
the adversity proved worthwhile as Tech secured a dominant win over UVA to close out the season,
redeeming themselves and finishing on a high note. But the losing streak made me ponder what keeps me
faithful to the team no matter what they experience — wins, losses, heartbreak or celebration — and I
discovered more about what keeps my Hokie heart going.
Beginning November 7 against Liberty and steadily continuing on through the
December 5 game against Clemson, the losing streak took the program to depths of despair that didn't
seem possible. Here was the top college football program in the state, a multiple time ACC champion,
home to Michael Vick and the team that captivated America in 1999, trudging through the season just
trying to survive. The fanbase was in an uproar and the foundation of the program seemed to be
crumbling. Having the benefit of following the Hokies since their run of success began in the late 90's,
I'd never experienced anything like it. As the hole got deeper with each passing week, it was becoming a
test just to withstand the pain.
What formed my undying love for Virginia Tech and especially the Hokies
Football team? I'm not sure I know exactly what it is. There are some elements I'm conscious of and
probably a lot I don't realize. Maybe it built up over time as I spent days, months and years on campus
working to graduate, all the while in the shadow of Lane Stadium where time and time again, the team
made everyone so proud as they climbed the national stage. Maybe it's because Blacksburg became a
home away from home as its small, Southwest Virginia feel provided a pleasant setting to grow as a
student and person. Or maybe it was because I admire what Virginia Tech stands for: a world class
education without pretension and students, and players, who want to go to work and prove themselves.
Over the years it's as though a block of Hokie Stone has formed in me, becoming
more defined with each passing game. It feels like it's in my chest, near my heart, and stays strong and
true through anything that might occur on the field. Sure, the wins and exhilarating moments at Lane
Stadium have played a part. But it's the losses, especially the close ones, that had the strongest effect.
They're the ones that have left me seething, promising myself the team would rise again from such an
injustice. These are the games where a supposed big-time opponent is favored and the Hokies go in, ears
pinned back and playing their hearts out, maybe take the lead at some point, and lose narrowly in the end.
The 2019 game against Notre Dame comes to mind. Watching Tech stand up and fight when the chips are
down is truly one of the most enjoyable things I've experienced over the years.
It feels like the team is competing not only for the win, but for the pride of the school and everyone
associated with it. It's as though the Virginia Tech Football team stands for something, there's something
different about them, and by defending every blade of grass on the field (to paraphrase Coach Foster)
they're actually standing up for who they are.
Something else I admire about the VT Football program is it's still an amateur
college football team. The facilities don't resemble an exotic resort set aside for students that are deemed
more special than others. Sure, there are nice buildings where the players can grow and excel — the
indoor facility, weight room, and new nutrition center come to mind — but they aren't extravagant or
embarrassingly excessive. When I've seen some of the grandiose new facilities at so-called blue blood
schools, I cringe and wonder what college football is coming to; is this still a sport played by students or
by coddled professional athletes?
Then there's the people of Virginia Tech Football team who have affected me so
deeply over time. I've watched as Frank Beamer, a true gentleman and sportsman, coached up teams from
a small Southwest Virginia town to a level that could compete with and defeat the best in the country.
And he did it in a way that made you proud to be a Hokie; treating people right, respecting others, and
showing humility. Bud Foster stood for the pride and determination of both the school and the team,
insisting we go toe to toe with anyone and stand up to any challenge, which was evident every time the
Lunch Pail Defense took the field. And today, Coach Fuente and his staff continue to preach and coach
the values I want the team to represent: hard work, persistence, and growth.
When you make it through a trying time, it's nice to taste victory and experience
the wonderful release that goes along with it. My battered football psyche was prepared for just about
anything as the UVA game loomed December 12. Lose the game, and the program would reach depths
that were unimaginable. Win and the losing streak would be emotionally erased, the Commonwealth Cup
would return home and the team could start recovering. Thankfully, the game was a reversal of fortune.
Each bad moment from earlier in the season that weighed me down for weeks and months was offset by
something good as the game progressed. The bright lights of Lane Stadium accentuated Tech's excellent
play the way a highlighter does text on paper and the team resembled a perfectly arranged set of chess
pieces being given all the right instructions. As the clock wound down on a commanding win,
redemption had finally arrived.
This season, like the close losses of the past, only strengthened my dedication as
a Hokie. The team's never giving in and continually competing through thick and thin was inspiring and
though it may not have translated into a desirable win total, it showed everyone what they, and Virginia
Tech, are made of. We are a school of hard workers without self-importance who want to compete and
show what we can do. These are the values I will always support and be proud of. This is why I will
stick with the team no matter what happens on the field. This is why the Hokie Stone in me will continue
to grow and strengthen year in and year out.