By Hank Kurz Jr.
BLACKSBURG, Va. - An exciting style of play and almost unmatched string of success rocketed Virginia Tech football into the company of the country's elite programs.
But when the Hokies open their season on Sept. 1 against East Carolina, the nation that looks on will be hard-pressed to not remember the sadness.
The last time the campus in Blacksburg was in the spotlight, it was to chronicle tragedy, and these Hokies are playing for those lost, and wounded, in a massacre.
On April 16, a gunman killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty members, then ended the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history by killing himself.
The stories of heroic professors sacrificing themselves so students could escape, wounded students playing dead and university officials agonizing over their decisions dominated the news for weeks - and made Virginia Tech the face of American tragedy.
Now, the Hokies will become the face of recovery, a team sure to attract new supporters because of what happened five months earlier, and likely be watched with increasing interest, a made-for-Hollywood, feel-good story improving with each victory.
Coach Frank Beamer knows the potential is there, and is delighted his team can become a part of the healing process, so long as it's not tied merely to the scores.
"People just want something to rally around and I'm hopeful that we can play well and that can be something that Tech people can rally around," Beamer said. "But I think the other side of it is it can't be that everything is riding on this."
Beamer plans to find a way to put the names of the victims in the stadium, whether on a banner or somewhere else, and said they will be in his heart always.
"I never want to forget those victims," he said.