The End of An Era

It’s taken some time for it to truly sink in, but less than twenty four hours later I’m still not sure how I feel about Coach Beamer deciding to hang up the whistle.  A part of me sees it as a time for the Hokies to move on and pursue a new route in recruiting and play calling. But the other part sees what he did for the University, the students and Blacksburg itself.

I looked down to check the time on my phone while I was refereeing my daughter’s soccer game and an ESPN alert said Coach Beamer is retiring.  In the midst of trying to watch the kids keep the ball in bounds and stay onside, I couldn’t exactly stop and think about Beamer.  But it slowly has crept into mind, “what is the University going to do?”  “What will Tech Football be without Beamer?”

I think about the time that a shy 18 year old kid found his way to the practice field of the 15th ranked Hokies, at the time, and watched his heroes with awe.  It’s a story I’ve recounted on this blog, but I’ve never told to many people.  It’s one of those moments where I got so close to the team but I’ve never been there again.  If I could do it again, I’d make even more out of it, and enjoy it even more.  For some reason, I thought at the time that I’d get even more chances to do it again.

“Yo kid,” I still remember the guy on crutches yelling at me.  “What are you doing here?”

It was a good question.  Somehow I floundered around enough to convince him that I belonged on the sidelines.  Seeing that I was maybe 150 pounds soaking wet and six feet tall if I stood on a rather large rock, he could tell I wasn’t there to join in on the practice.  I don’t remember what I told him but I will always remember Tee Butler.  I don’t know where he is now and I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s one of the Hokies that made me feel comfortable enough to talk to the big man.

You know, the big man: Coach Beamer.

If you’ve ever been 18 years old, come from a small town and shy as hell; going up to someone with the prestige and championship pedigree of Coach Beamer is intimidating as hell.

When he ended practice, Tee said it was my turn and wished me luck. I think he even laughed as he hobbled away.

With whatever courage I could muster, I got up the nerve to go talk to Coach.  I didn’t know what to expect, well, let’s be honest, I did know what I was expecting.  I was expecting him to be like that guy in practice who yelled when you didn’t get the drill right.  The Coach who did not have time for me or who was going to give me an attitude because I was cutting into his time when he could be calling recruits.

What I got was down-home charm.  I got a Coach who was supportive and could tell that I was nervous and out of my depth.  I got a Coach who seemed to genuinely care.  I got a Coach who did not act like he was bigger than the University or the students.  It was truly impressive to me when I look back on it.  At the time I was just happy that I didn’t pee my pants.  Now that I think about it, he left me feeling like he truly cared about our meeting.  Whether he knows it or remembers it, I will always remember that day when I got to interview him.  Not that I was that great of a reporter because my questions were awful, but for someone who is a Hokie fan and can’t always cross paths with the Coach, it is one of those moments that I will always remember.

Some people treasure meeting athletes and meeting celebrities, but it’s funny, I was terrible at “my job” that day and he was as cool as a cucumber and tried to help me.  He didn’t rush me, and I stopped the questions because I ran out of them, otherwise I think he would have stood there with me all day in his straw hat.  It’s amazing, this is a guy that will someday end up in the College Football Hall of Fame.

It makes me torn when I watch the Hokies play sometimes on Saturdays.  I feel like he’s the nicest guy you could ever want to meet and truly cares about the players but maybe the game has passed him by a bit.  I hesitate to say that.  I truly do.  The man was an innovator on special teams and created “Beamer Ball.”

He always said he’d walk away when he said it would be beneficial for the program and maybe his feeling is right.  I’m not sure, maybe he’s not right.  How can I judge?  It’s his decision not mine.  I’ve been looking at it all year and saying he’s been the problem or the offense has been the problem, but how do I know?  I’m not there in the game.  I’m not there in practice.  I’m not there on the sidelines.  I’m not there with a headset.  I’m not there in the huddle.  How do I know?  Hell I couldn’t even get the courage up to really interview him.  What do I know?

Only Coach knows what is truly right for him.  From what I’ve seen only Coach knows what is truly right for the University and the players. They are his players because he treats them like they are part of his family, just like everyone he comes in contact with.  It will be odd not to see Coach walking that sideline next year and I still have yet to really digest it.  There are still those questions: Who could replace him?  How could you ever replace him?  Will it ever be the same?  Where will the program go from here?

I guess it will all work out somehow. I’m sure Coach will give it all he has for the rest of the year and no doubt the players will do all they can to send him out on a high note.  It will be interesting to see if recruits back out because Coach is leaving.  When I think of him, I think icon is probably a good way to describe him, but to me he’ll always be that Coach that gave me a moment that I’ll never forget and I thank him for that.  If I ever get the chance I would like to do it in person, but until then, thank you for everything Coach.

My Ambitions As A Writer

Forgive me ‘Pac but it seems like the perfect headline for a story about college and my craft. About the same time that 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me came out, I went to Virginia Tech to start my freshman year with hopes of being an author.

A little ways into my campaign I found out through the school’s newspaper (Collegiate Times, memories) that they were looking for a sports writer/intern and they needed them ASAP for a special story. Me being a typical Southern male and Virginia Tech student I was crazy about the football team and played basketball any time I could.

What you have to keep in mind here is that VT at this time was about 24,000 and the town I was coming from was only about 8,000 so I was experiencing a bit of fish out of water syndrome. I was doing ok, making it to most (music appreciation on Tuesdays I could NOT get up for) classes on time and I was doing my best to adjust to a roommate and a dorm that is notoriously wild. Hokies know Pritchard Hall, if you don’t know Pritchard ask a Hokie. In fact my year was the year of the fire alarm, it got to be so bad that it was almost once a day. I believe one night I even slept through one as scary as that sounds. Then there’s the food and while they say the food has gotten better, back then there were places you only went if you had spare time afterward. I’m sure most colleges have places like that.

I went to the CT and I asked them if they were still offering the intern/writer position and indeed they were. They asked if I was a writer which I could check that off and they got to the sports part. What did I know about sports and football in particular? Really? Oh I’ve only been coming to Lane for years. I saw Tech play in two Gator Bowls and I know they just won the Sugar Bowl and I was hoping for more.

I guess I BS’ed my way through whatever because they gave me the surprise gig, which surprised me. I was told to go up to the football practice field no show them my CT press badge, stand on the sideline, watch practice and then interview Coach Frank Beamer. Ok. So I’m not even sure what happened after that. I don’t remember leaving there. I just remember I somehow found my way to practice and I remember Coach’s whistle. Here I was an 18 year old kid way out of his depth and I’m supposed to write a piece about one of the best teams in college football? Excuse me? My first semester in college? Huh? I’m way lost this isn’t happening to me.

I found my way to this open space and this guy comes along on crutches. He said his name was Tee (Tee Butler from New Jersey) he had a knee injury and he was a freshman too. He had gotten hurt during the first couple of days of spring drills and was recovering from surgery. I think he was looking for someone to talk to and someone to pick on because he could tell I was in over my head. But he made me laugh and he was really great. I don’t know if I ever got to thank him but he made me feel much more at ease on the sidelines, because for a young kid to see something like that up,close is like Rudy seeing Notre Dame practice up close.

When the time came to interview Frank Beamer I’m certain I asked stupid questions. No doubt he knew I was nervous and lost as well, especially when you consider the national media that bugs him all the time. I will tell you I’ve read his book and he talks about taking time for people and treating people fairly and nice. This man took time out of his schedule after practice for me and was polite and answered every one of my questions, I have nothing but the greatest respect for him. He probably doesn’t remember it but his was the first interview I ever had…I suppose I’ll never be able to top that. Or at least I haven’t yet. This was before the Mike Vick years and the ACC so we talked about the Big East and the Sugar Bowl. It was fun but way too short.

My interview and story were put in the CT, bottom half of the sports section on the front page. I have a copy in my closet. I pull it out every now and then to remind myself that I’ve been that close to one of the greatest college football coaches of all time and I’ve interviewed the man. To think what I could have done if I didn’t quit after that, I just felt overwhelmed. It’s a shame really, but I couldn’t help it, I was star struck, I needed more experience with someone guiding me and they weren’t going to do it. So I knew my work was going to suffer. Tough decision. I guess my ambitions never changed, I always wanted to be the best and be in the presence of the best.