Hokies' loss becomes all of ours now

There are days when all of us are struck with retroactive shame. On a personal note, Monday was one of them.

More than 30 years of petty dislikes and jealousies directed at one institution based entirely on absurd athletic loyalties were stripped bare and thrown away with one horrifying event.

On Monday morning, we all wept for Virginia Tech. Its loss is our loss - 32 times over.

What happened Monday in Blacksburg, Va., has absolutely nothing to do with sports. It was a human tragedy on a scale that unfortunately has become all too easy to imagine in this day and age. Thirty-two people were senselessly massacred in the deadliest school shooting in history.

These weren't just Virginia Tech students who were gunned down, these were our children. All of us. This could have been any college campus in America - any place where we send our brightest young minds, presuming them to be safe and taken care of in a communal academic environment.

Events like this shatter the illusion of safety. It could have been Atlanta or Athens, Ga. It could have been Clemson or Columbia, S.C. It could have been Augusta State or USC Aiken that was suddenly launched to the top of the worst possible school ranking list that includes the University of Texas, Columbine High School and the Amish one-room West Nickel Mines School.

It is a horror story of epic proportions that should hit close to home for everyone. It certainly hit close to mine.

After seeing the first online report about one fatality in a dormitory hall shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, the immediate nervous reaction was to call my brother to make sure my niece, Katie, was safe.

She's a freshman at Virginia Tech - one of the students whose first collegiate experience was having the opening day of classes canceled because an escaped prisoner was armed and loose on campus. Welcome to the real world, kids.

My brother said she's fine, having received a text-message from her saying she was OK and holed up in her chemistry lab. Brief relief.

Then the horrifying reports suddenly escalated, and the gunman had gone on a rampage in one of the science buildings, and the fear returned, more intense than before. For too long my brother's phone was busy. Then he called me, saying they'd talked to Katie and she's still fine.

The classroom shootings occurred in the building adjacent to where she was. A faculty-wide text message went out telling everyone to leave campus immediately - essentially run for your lives. My niece mentioned that some panicked students were jumping out of windows in the building next door to escape the gunman.

After all the adrenaline subsided and the raw emotions of a personal stake in this tragedy retreated to a general sadness at the senselessness of it all, the little area of the brain that governs irrational thought checked in.

That's where the shame started.

As a University of Virginia graduate, who was raised with an athletic consciousness in a house full of Richmond Spiders, Virginia Tech was always perceived as the enemy. I've disliked the Hokies as far back as I can remember. It was second nature. I applied to school there, got accepted and prayed that it wouldn't be the only offer I got.

At our college newspapers, we traded sophomoric rants about the inadequacy of each other in rival publications during the week of the biggest football game of the year.

After some intense contests we might confront opposing fans in ridiculous jousts that rarely rose above the intellectual level of, "You suck! No, you suck!"

Every one of you who cares about Georgia or Georgia Tech, Clemson or South Carolina knows what I'm talking about. We all harbor this insanely childish impulse that brings out the worst within us.

How many times have we basked in disturbing glee at the athletic misfortunes of a rival?

How many times have we reflexively judged strangers because of the school logo they display?

How many times have we told tasteless jokes about a rival school and the aptitude of those we deemed unfortunate enough to attend?

How many times have we half-kidded a relative or friend for making the poorest possible choice in collegiate affiliation?

It was only a few weeks ago that I remember telling a friend that only one shard of athletic bigotry remained in my heart. As the years go by, the tendency to be part of the "Anybody but ..." crowd slowly erodes, and most of the athletic passions subside. It took a few years, but I actually root for North Carolina now because my wife went there. I could care less whether the Dallas Cowboys succeed or fail.

But somewhere deep inside the darkest recess of my consciousness, that rival's hatred for Virginia Tech still persisted.

Until Monday, that is. After this "monumental" horror that was inflicted upon both the Virginia Tech community and the world at large, it's hard to imagine holding a silly grudge based on the color of a uniform.

In fact, the opposite holds. Nothing will ever take away the pain and despair that a homicidal gunman delivered so brutally Monday.

Those scars remain forever.

But as this country did after the trauma of Sept. 11, the Virginia Tech community will rally around a sports team as a collective way to cope.

This Cavalier will cheer along with them, rooting for anything that will bring them some peace and joy.

Go Hokies. Our heart is forever with you.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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