Before the game, a University of Virginia graduate stated: “If not for my Hokie friends, I’d have no friends at all. May the best team win.”
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The stage was set to propel the Virginia/Virginia Tech rivalry from a “cute” regional affair into the national spotlight, complete with an appearance by the College Game Day crew. For the first time in a long time, Virginia boasted the more celebrated team in a sport considered mass spectator/high revenue. Virginia Tech may well be the media favorite in football, but on this Saturday in February, the Virginia Cavaliers boasted a spectacular 22-1 record & had been ranked the number two team in the nation for several weeks now. And following a loss earlier in the week by then no. 1 Villanova, the stage was set for Virginia to ascend to the apex of the Division 1 major college basketball polls. The only thing standing in Virginia’s way was a seven loss Virginia Tech Hokie team that they had manhandled barely a month earlier on Tech’s home court. The world was about to witness a coronation. The sports media that always seemed to highlight Tech’s dominance in football would finally have to acknowledge how lopsided the basketball rivalry had been in the favor of the Cavaliers—91 wins versus 55 losses against the hated Hokies. Finally, the rest of the world would have to care about something Virginia had done so well in. Thousands upon thousands of Cavalier fans (WaHoos) would experience a reprieve. But when Virginia turned in their most disastrous performance of the year in the face of a ravenous Hokie squad, it seemed as if the bottom had fallen out of the earth.
I typically don’t pray for results on sporting events. I feel such a practice is disrespectful towards God, who is far too busy with more weighty matters; as well as disrespectful towards people who are enduring true suffering. Praying to God over a score would be worse than calling 911 for a lost set of keys on a Saturday night in a big, crime-ridden city. There are just higher priorities out there. But I ordinarily make an exception when it comes to Virginia vs. Virginia Tech. And when my prayer almost maliciously went unanswered, I threw my arms up towards the sky & protested, “God–why do you love the Hokies more than you love us?”
The next few days at work following the debacle featured a mixture of fellow Virginia fans quietly consoling one another & Hokie fans smugly celebrating their alleged superiority. For the record, Virginia was still awarded the number one spot in the polls despite the loss & all of its pre-season goals were still within reach. Nonetheless, the Hokies I encountered were convinced they had ruined our season.
Here is some of what I heard during the aftermath from some of the less gracious fans from both sides. “The game isn’t for fun–it’s for blood! All through football season we have to hear, ‘Wait for basketball season.” Well, we did wait. And still beat you!” A Virginia supporter summed it up this way: “The problem with the rivalry is this. Virginia Tech hates Virginia more than Virginia hates Virginia Tech. I have no doubt in my mind that the Tech players would literally kill the Virginia players if it meant winning the game if they could get away with it. But our players just aren’t willing to do that.”
I heard another man utter, “Virginia Tech is evil! They sacrifice goats!!” Okay, I said that. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps.
This sounds like a loser’s mentality, but one of the more disgruntled, animated, & ordinarily negative Virginia supporters that I know consoled me with the simplest of words. “It’s okay. It is just a game.
I had quietly conceded this to myself a day earlier but had been too ashamed to say it out loud. It was just a game, but to me, it was so much more. I will be brief in summary but almost every major wrong I’ve suffered through in life had been at the hands of the Virginia Tech Hokies. I am a non-violent, peaceful guy. I’m not a huge man either, never played high school football, etc—which should make it much more believable when I say that I don’t go around looking for trouble. But I have been in one public fight in my adult life & almost got into about five others. All but two of these encounters came about because of the antics of a Virginia Tech Hokie or Hokies. Furthermore, the only woman I ever came close to marrying transferred from a small college in our home town to a university closer to Virginia Tech. We did fine until she attended one party at Virginia Tech & afterwards decided she wanted nothing to do with me without so much as an explanation. I found out years later that she ending up marrying a Virginia Tech Hokie! Enough already! These people sacrifice goats!!! Remember?
And then it happened. I experienced a moment of clarity. I want to take you back to the man who told me that Hokie players would kill Virginia players if it meant winning. He then sighed and, after a pause, quietly explained, “Once it gets to that point, we all just need to take a step back. No competition is worth feeling that way over.” He told me that I was angry over someone else’s happiness, and that it is never healthy to revel in another person’s misery. In 2016, I had a near death experience during major surgery. I remember waking up in what I now know to be the recovery room with my once muscular body bloodied & scarred. I remember telling God that I was willing to live with the scars so long as he’d let me live. I remember thinking that the reason I wasn’t ready to die was because I had gone through life fueling myself on misguided motivation. I had been driven by vanity & anger more than anything else. I didn’t want my last thought on this earth to be that horrible recognition.
I then realized why God hadn’t answered my prayer. My goal had been to humiliate Virginia Tech—a group of people who I perceived to be behind great suffering in my life. The rivalry had indeed become more than just I game, but it was my fault it had come to that. I remember the promise I made to myself & to God back in 2016; I no longer wanted to be driven for the right to say, “I told you so.”
Last night, Virginia took the court for the first time as the number one team. They looked the part & won the game in their typical style—rugged but not flashy. I watched the game but I truly would have been okay with either outcome–win or lose. It had become just a game again. Even the terms we throw around every day—winning & losing—have a different meaning to me.
“What does to profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”
In life, maybe all really is fair; we are the ones who decide if is we choose to live for love or for war.