Former Virginia Tech and D-League player Coleman Collins plays professional basketball in Germany, has a blog, and contributes semi-regularly to TrueHoop. Today he writes about the tragedy that shaped his college days, three years ago.
(I must apologize for the way this meanders and detours and jumps around. That's the way it came out on paper. I must also apologize for the way it is centered around me, and my experiences. I don't wish to diminish anyone else's, least of all the victims, but it is the only story I know well enough to tell. Solah-rex, solah-rah. Polytech Vir-gin-ia.)
When I first visited Virginia Tech in the fall of 2002 I was a 16-year-old boy with no swagger and stains on my teeth from where my braces had been. I'd just gotten them off and was brushing extra hard to get the colors to blend, the slight yellow rings and the blinding white that had been protected by the brackets. I got to campus and walked around, and that first night with some help from a few older players I was admitted into the only club in town on the condition I would drink nothing but water. (Remember Woody's? Blacksburg people might.) After the club closed people spilled into the street. It was the night before the big LSU game, and some LSU fans got into a shouting match with Tech students, and suddenly everyone was in the street, yelling and cheering and cursing LSU. All of downtown Blacksburg was on Main Street, screaming their lungs out. A little bit before 3 a.m. the Hokie Bird came by in a truck, and everyone mobbed it. Pandemonium. One side of the street -- "LET'S GO!" On the other -- "HOKIES!" I had to have been the only sober person there, wide-eyed, soaking it all in. When the police came out in riot gear to disperse the unruly crowd, I ran away, laughing, thinking how much fun it would be to play in front of fans that were so intense.
When I first enrolled in the summer of 2003 I was still a few months shy of 17. I had gotten my driver's license and the spots on my teeth had faded a bit more. I was on my way. I got on campus, took a few classes, and began the transformation from being a person to an athlete. In college, there is a difference. Though the basketball team at VT was less than mediocre, it provided you with a different sort of status on campus. You walked a bit taller. Your posture was better. People would ask to take pictures with you, or maybe sneak and snap pictures of you themselves when you weren't looking. It was the sort of reverence that we Americans reserve for reality TV stars. I have seen you on TV. Some gatekeeper has decided that you are important enough to be broadcasted into my home; therefore I will pay attention to you. This becomes a sort of a drug over the years; when a dunk of mine was featured on SportsCenter's Top 10, I found myself lingering near the televisions in the dining hall near the end of each program, trying to looking nonchalant. Daring people to match the faces. Oh, what's that, you say I look familiar? That guy looks like me? Well let me tell you something, that is me. Yes, the very same. I know, I know -- you're quite welcome.
I don't want to go on and on about this, but the general idea is that playing a big-time college sport at a school with 25,000 students skews your perspective and makes you feel apart from the rest of the community. When you play, you hear the voices screaming your name. They are cheering for you. They love you. All of them. You bask in it, bathe in it. You play, and they cheer. The players do not cheer and the fans do not play. It is a sort of symbiosis - without the player, there is no fan. The problem lies the other way around. Without the cheers, does the player exist? When the cheers stop, is it not inevitable that you, the player, lose your identity?
But that is a topic for another day.
Today is April 16th. It has been three years. I have a weird relationship with the number three. It's my lucky number, I suppose, but it's more than that. When I was little, I would step on cracks and break mothers' backs with impunity, but I'd take tiny steps inside each sidewalk square. Three steps each. If the square was too small for steps I'd hop on it three times. I've never had a uniform number that wasn't a multiple of three. I might eat three M&Ms, or even 51, but never 49 or 50.
On April 16th, 2007, a murderer killed 32 people on Virginia Tech's campus. I don't feel like saying the guy's name. By the time I woke up everyone was dead -- the 32 victims and the one murderer. 33. In any other circumstance that number would comfort me, but it doesn't. On April 16th I woke up to missed calls, texts, frantic messages asking if I was alright. Hadn't paid my cable bill, so I watched the coverage at my girlfriend's house. No one knew who had been killed because they wanted to notify all the families first, so we turned to Facebook and phones to do a rough head count. Was so-and-so accounted for? A resident advisor was killed. Wasn't what's-her-name an RA in West AJ? As it turned out I didn't know anyone personally. People always give off a sigh of relief when I tell them this.
"So were you there when it happened?"
"You were actually in the building when he was shooting?"
No, I was at home sleeping.
"Oh. Well you didn't actually know anyone, did you?"
No, not personally.
"Oh, well that's good, I guess."
How could I explain that because I didn't know anyone who was killed that day, that everyone I know was killed that day? There will be people that read this who personally knew victims. Trust me, I can't compete with your pain, but God...I didn't know I could feel that way. I think they call it empathy. So yeah, that was the day I realized what empathy was. At the time of the shootings it had been a little over a year since my father died and I knew what pain felt like, what grief felt like, what it meant to lose someone you loved and wished would live forever. This was different. He'd been a smoker and had gotten cancer. Lifetime smokers die from lung cancer. It's what they do. It had been painful, but this... Gradually the faces came. There was that guy I'd always laughed at. He walked with a feminine gait, not mincing but close-legged, books clutched tightly across his chest. He was different and I'd laughed at him for it and there was nothing I could do to atone. There were 31 people I'd never spoken to, never taken the time to know. Gone. I imagined them as dandelion seeds, tossed to the wind by the wanton breaths of a mischievous child.
No one said much. We sat and stared at the coverage and carnage on the screen. The usual questions: Why? How? But mostly...why? How could this happen to us, to them - people who were minding their own business, that had never hurt a soul. Stories began to roll in, anecdotes and amateur video from shaky cell phone cameras. Professor Liviu Lebrescu - a Holocaust survivor, mind you - had sacrificed his life, barricading the door with his body to allow his students to leap to safety. The guy I'd laughed at, Ryan Clark. He was the second person killed. He died trying to help the first. As an RA, it was his responsibility to care for the students in his dorm. A hero. I'd hit game-winning shots before; people talk about "late-game heroics." But would I ever have the strength to do that? To die a hero? To hear a gunshot and run towards it rather than away?
That night I went home and laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. I didn't sleep long. I woke up the next day and discovered that President Bush was coming to speak at the basketball coliseum, so I went to the locker room at 9 a.m. in order to stake out a good spot for his speech. The door was already open when I got there. Secret Service agents were milling around. All eyes turned towards my face, assessing my threat level. I put my hands up, stammering.
"I -- I'm just a basketball player, man."
"You can't be in here. This room is temporarily Secret Service Central Command." This from what seemed to be one of the more senior agents. Though we were indoors, he was the only one wearing sunglasses.
"I just need to get something out of my locker," I lied.
"John -- let the kid stay." This from another agent, with visible and kinder eyes. "It's his locker room, and I think he's been through enough already."
Sunglasses raised, eyes squinted. "I guess he's alright."
I sat down at the computer while they discussed their positioning for the speech. Kind Eyes ended up being a UNC fan. "You guys got my Tar Heels this year. Twice. But we'll be back on top soon."
It didn't seem as important as it had a few weeks earlier, in March. Madness fades. I sat with the agents for a couple hours, talking about nothing, basketball, small talk. Everything was small talk that day. It had been a little over 24 hours since the shootings. We were the axis and as the rest of the world turned, Blacksburg was still. Time stopped. Or didn't matter, anyway.
President Bush gave a great speech, but something was missing. There was still a pall in the air. The deaths weighed on us. How could they not? How can you move on from something like that? You can't. You can try and cope, but you can never move on.
And then Nikki Giovanni got on stage. She was fiery. She was electric. (Nikki, if you ever read this, let me just say I'm sorry I missed so many days that year I took your creative writing class. It was an eight o'clock class -- I keep strange hours...) I can't do it justice here; you have to watch the video. But she ended like this.
No one deserves a tragedy.
We are Virginia Tech.
The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds.
We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid.
We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.
We are alive to the imagination and the possibility.
We will continue to invent the future
Through our blood and tears
Through all this sadness
We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.
Everyone stood and clapped. Then, since everyone was standing and clapping in a basketball gym, naturally they started cheering. LET'S GO HOKIES! (Clap-clap-clapclapclap) LET'S GO HOKIES! (Clap-clap-clapclapclap). Like the first time I'd heard it on those streets all over again, only faster, more urgent. Not a battle cry; a sober plea. And for the first time in my life, I cheered with them. I had always been convinced of my own importance - supremely confident in how much my abilities meant to every single person within a 50-mile radius. At that moment I realized how much all those people, their support, cheers...tears...how much it all meant to me. We cheered together, for what I don't know. We cheered because we were alive. We cheered because we were together. It was the most beautiful sound I've ever heard, the most beautiful sound I've ever made. That was the day I realized what a catharsis was. The pain would come back, of course -- but for those moments we were weightless. Us dandelions, floating together on a sea of cheers.