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Thursday, April 19, 2007
Campus tragedy will only bring tight community closer

By Chris Fowler
ESPN.com

They are clashing colors, maroon and orange. As they say, it's a combination only a Hokie could love.

But Tuesday, maroon and orange came together in a moving display of sympathy, support and pride. Watching Virginia Tech students in school colors grieve together at the convocation in Cassell Coliseum got me choked up. I couldn't speak. When they concluded the afternoon by together yelling "We Are Virginia Tech!" and "Let's Go Hokies!" I lost it. Surprising feelings rushed forth. Here were students in a basketball arena doing a sports chant. It was such a familiar expression of unity, but this time summoned for an infinitely more profound occasion.
VT Convocation
The Virginia Tech community has come together to mourn the lives that were lost.

It's a campus I know well, from many visits through the years. You don't arrive at Virginia Tech accidentally. You have to work to get there, journeying into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's lovely … picturesque … and seems very far away from the dangers of the outside world.

There is a collective strength of spirit there that feels quite different from other campuses we visit. It's a big school, of about 26,000. But it feels like a tight community.

The official name is Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. It's not a curriculum or a setting for everyone. But most students who are there want to be nowhere else. That spirit seems to endure long after leaving Blacksburg. Once a Hokie, always a Hokie.

All of this made watching the images and hearing the horrific accounts Monday even more chilling. All the networks showed maps marking the buildings the shootings took place. In between them is the spot "College GameDay" was staged in September, on the mall near the library and the parade ground.

Those of us who work on "GameDay" (and on the entire ESPN college football project) have a strong affection for Virginia Tech that goes back many years. The pain there is unimaginable and will not soon fade. We hope that the sense of unity and togetherness that makes it a special campus will remain.

During the Hokies' run to the championship game in the '99 football season, it was the amazing spirit of Virginia Tech that helped us take "GameDay's" road shows to a level we'd never imagined. At the urging of Frank Beamer, an orange and maroon horde of about 13,000 wedged in to a corner of Lane Stadium one Saturday morning.

For us, it was a mind-boggling display. Sure, we knew they hadn't necessarily shown up to hear three guys on a set many yards away talk football. They came to show the nation how strongly they felt about their team and their school. And I can't tell you how much it meant to us to share the day with them.

When "GameDay" revisited Blacksburg later that season, we figured that the novelty had worn off and expected a much smaller crowd. Instead, an even bigger, more spirited throng roared for 90 minutes. After that, our little traveling circus was never the same. The ante had been upped for every other school. Virginia Tech set the standard. We really have savored each visit since.

The pain there is unimaginable and will not soon fade. We hope that the sense of unity and togetherness that makes it a special campus will remain.
 

This week, that powerful sense of community at Tech is being shown to the world. It is heartening.

Unfortunately, much of the world always will associate this campus in the mountains only with this massacre. Many will conclude from this senseless, psychotic act that the current college generation in America is warped by violence … and hopeless.

To me, news events of recent weeks have revealed something quite different. It strikes me: The many Tech students I have seen interviewed were so thoughtful and reasonable, even in moments fresh with confused fear. A strong sense of humanity shines through.

In a way, I saw the same sense of dignity and wisdom-beyond-years displayed by the Rutgers women's basketball team and the three former lacrosse players from Duke. Under intense scrutiny, it was the college kids who were level-headed, displaying tolerant, thoughtful restraint and a sense of perspective, while so many adults embarrassed themselves, grandstanding for the voracious 24-hour media machine, foaming at the mouth on cue.

Not the students. It made me feel pretty good about the generation that will inherit this place.

To the community of Virginia Tech and to the families of the victims, our thoughts will remain with you during the long, difficult healing process. Your sense of unity has never been more needed. It was touching that under the weight of so many other emotions, Tech students seemed saddened that the school they love forever could be branded as the site of an historic massacre.

To those of us who have spent time there, Tech always will be recognized for much more than the hours of tragedy April 16, 2007. We look forward to our next chance to experience Virginia Tech pride first hand.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay."