BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) -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.
``It's going to be emotional for a lot of people,'' defensive coordinator Bud Foster said of the season opener against East Carolina, a noon start at Lane Stadium.
On April 16, 2007, 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.''
The Hokies, though, have become fixtures in The Associated Press top 10 by thriving in big games and big atmospheres, and their fans have made raucous 67,000-seat Lane Stadium one of the hardest places for opposing teams to play in the country.
It's understandable, then, that the team is eager to get started.
``As a team, we're just going to take it among ourselves to have the best season that we can because we know we represent a lot more than ourselves,'' said defensive tackle Carlton Powell, one of eight starters back on a defense that has led the nation is fewest yards allowed the last two years. ``We represent the morale of the school. We represent every single student. We represent everybody who's a Virginia Tech fan.''
To do that with success, Beamer said, means attending to the football side.
``You've got to take care of the little things, take care of the details and then you just go out there and play as hard as you can on Saturday and whatever the result, that's what it's got to be,'' Beamer said. ``And I think our fans realize - hey, we're playing hard and giving it our best shot and hopefully, that's good enough because I really would like for these people to have something to rally around.''
Entering his 20th season as coach at his alma mater, Beamer and Hokies fans have plenty to be excited about. Virginia Tech was the overwhelming choice of ACC sportswriters to win the league championship, but has a very demanding schedule.
After the Pirates, the Hokies travel to Baton Rouge to play Louisiana State, expected to be among the nation's top teams. In November, the Hokies play consecutive games against Georgia Tech, Florida State and rivals Miami and Virginia.
All year long, the players are sure to face questions about the shootings, and perhaps how their success is their way of paying a moving tribute to the victims.
Heady stuff, for sure, for young men mostly in their early 20s.
With help from students, alumni and what he's expecting to be a more caring, closer-knit community at home games and on the road, Beamer hopes Tech will be able to change the way April 16 - and the university - are remembered years from now.
``Some people say that Tech's going to be known for the 32 people that died, but I really think that what it's going to be known for is they had a terrible tragedy and then the Tech people responded to the tragedy,'' Beamer said. ``How they responded is how Tech will really be remembered and thought of, and I think that's true.''
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.
The Hokies will also carry the names with them to the sidelines for every game, inside the lunch pail that has come to symbolize the defense's workmanlike approach.
Foster, who has the pail in his office, said the names are already inside.
The shootings took the lives of 28 students, including the shooter, and five professors, and the message of living for today will also be repeated, Foster said.
``One thing you do with young people and with the tragedy that happened (is let them know) tomorrow's not guaranteed,'' Foster said. ``We want these guys to be big achievers and reach their potential. ... You had some young people that had so much hope and potential and it was taken away from them. In football, it can be taken away like that as well. Each day, live it to the fullest because tomorrow's not guaranteed.''
The focus on caring and kindness will spread to the team, too.
``Let's focus on the now,'' Foster said the team will be told. ``Tell people that you care about that you love them. Your buddy you care about? Don't be afraid to hug his neck, don't be afraid to lay it on the line for a guy. Whatever it may be.
``Let's live the moment and be the best we can be.''
And in the process, honor those who didn't get a chance to be a part of it.

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