BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) -The sign over his windshield thanked East Carolina for supporting his alma mater, and the tears showed that Mike Zell is still hurting.
``Today is a pretty emotional thing, just coming back for the first time since all this happened,'' the 1977 graduate of Virginia Tech said, his eyes quickly welling up to overflowing with tears. ``All the stuff that occurred, it's just overwhelming.''
For Zell, 53, and many others, the No. 9 Hokies' much anticipated season opener against East Carolina was more than the start of a new season; it was a new beginning, a time to remember and honor the 32 students and faculty members killed by a deranged student who then took his own life last April, and then a time to move on.
``All the 32 (victims) were buried and their families grieved, but this is really, for all the people coming back to Blacksburg, this is like a funeral service, this is like a memorial,'' Zell said, pausing to dab both of his eyes with a maroon napkin.
In this college town near the Blue Ridge Mountains, linked more closely than ever to the community by a tragedy that horrified the nation, coach Frank Beamer has said the return of the beloved football team to action would help with the healing.
As his team filed off buses two hours before gametime - a game the Hokies would win, 17-7 - it began in earnest.
Fans lined up five, 10, even 15 deep on both sides of the street, most wearing the Hokies' maroon and orange colors, as the team once known as the Fighting Gobblers passed. The fans called out ``Let's go Hokies'' and sounded their turkey callers, and many held signs expressing thanks to supporters. One read, ``GOD is a Hokie.''
Ronnie Thompson, 63, of Blacksburg, said the team's healing powers are for real.
``It's the secret to Virginia Tech football,'' he said while relaxing at a tailgate party just after the team got its rousing welcome. ``It could make us all well.''
The game was preceded by a ceremony that thanked East Carolina for a $100,000 donation to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, included a tribute video, recognition of first responders, a moment of silence and a flyover by two F-15 fighter jets.
Fans were eager to see the ceremony, and then to get down to playing the brand of football that made the school and the Hokies known long before the killings.
``We're going to go through the motions, and we're going to cry,'' Thompson's wife, Sharon, said. ``Then we're going to jump up and down and go play football and we're going to move on from here. We'll never forget, but it's time to move on.''
Zell, whose daughter Alexis decided to transfer to Virginia Tech before the massacre, wasn't sure he was ready to come back yet, but decided not to put it off.
``I did. I did. This is a healing process, and the healing began shortly after it happened, but this is a healing process and this is part of it,'' he said. ``Everybody in still grieving. We're moving on with our lives, but it's still a grieving process.''
His tears, he said, were as much tears of thanks as they were of sadness.
``It's just the absolute support of it all, the outpouring of all the people who never even knew Virginia Tech was on the map,'' he said. ``Coming down here, there were people just beeping and waving, just positive stuff. It was just so great to feel it.''

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