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July 22, 2007

Hokies have much to play for

ACC Media Days: Day One Photo Gallery

PINEHURST, N.C. Perhaps no team in the country ever has faced the kind of pressure Virginia Tech will encounter this season.

The Hokies are expected to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title and challenge for the national championship. And that's the easy part of their job.

There's also the much larger matter of helping restore hope to a campus still reeling from the deadliest school shooting in American history.

"It's definitely a lot of pressure," senior defensive tackle Carlton Powell said Sunday at the Atlantic Coast Conference Media Days at the Pinehurst Resort. "But under the greatest pressure is when diamonds are made."

The Hokies get a greater sense of that responsibility every time they run into someone who discovers they're from Virginia Tech.

Immediately they're asked where they were on April 16, the date that Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people to death before killing himself.

"At first I didn't really want to respond to it," said Duane Brown, a senior offensive tackle. "Now I'm dealing with it. It's kind of a bad thing that that's the thing that reminds people of Virginia Tech, but at the same time, everyone sympathizes with you and wants to know what's going on. You feel bad about it, but at the same time you're glad people are wondering about what's going on with you and are worrying about you."

Brown said he first heard about the tragedy when a roommate text-messaged him that a shooter was loose on the campus. Brown then returned home and contacted friends as he watched news accounts of the shootings.

Powell had just gotten out of a position meeting when the first shooting occurred. As ambulances and police cars raced onto campus, Powell rushed home and tried to reach friends, family members and teammates.

"The day it happened wasn't as bad as the day after," Brown said. "(That's when) it really hit you."

Brown and Powell understand they will probably spend the entire season repeating these accounts. Each time Virginia Tech plays a game media covering the opposing team will be producing stories about how the Hokies are dealing with the tragedy.

Virginia Tech's football media guide includes names of each victim and a picture of a campus candlelight vigil on the inside cover along with the words "We Remember" and "We are Virginia Tech."

Brown and Powell say they've made their peace with the situation. They don't mind telling their stories from April 16 and have vowed not to let this issue distract them from their focus of winning the ACC title.

"It's something we'll never forget, but it's something we have to get over," Powell said. "We can't let it hinder us. We just have to press forward."

And they believe the community is gradually taking steps in that direction.

"The campus has started getting back to normal," Brown said. "A lot of students are getting back. It's a slow process, but everyone's looking forward to getting back to class."

That healing process could reach a turning point Sept. 1 when Virginia Tech opens its season at home against East Carolina.

The emotions surrounding that game should overflow so much that Brown struggled to come up with words to describe the potential atmosphere.

"I get chill bumps just thinking about it," Brown said. "Our fans are so ready. Everyone I talk to is going to be at that game. They're talking about it and can't wait."

All the excitement leading up to the season begs the following question. Could the Hokies get wound up too tightly while preparing for a season that means so much to themselves and the community?

The Hokies didn't get any favors from a schedule that forces them to travel to Louisiana State one week after that emotionally charged opener with East Carolina. A loss in either of those games could devastate their national-title hopes.

Brown and Powell downplay the notion that they may put too much pressure on themselves to deliver a big season. They believe Virginia Tech's senior leadership and veteran coaching staff make the Hokies uniquely qualified to deal with this type of burden.

Virginia Tech returns 16 starters from a team that went 10-3 last year while leading the nation in scoring defense and total defense. Frank Beamer is entering his 21st year as the Hokies' head coach. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and running backs coach Billy Hite have a combined 63 years of full-time coaching experience at the school.

"Even before this situation happened, we were really hoping to be as successful as we could and had national championship hopes," Brown said. "This happened, and it's added encouragement and motivation."

Brown and Powell instead are trying to focus on the positive.

Powell said he noticed a greater number of people wearing Virginia Tech gear this summer when he returned home to Chesapeake, Va. He heard stories of "We Are Virginia Tech" T-shirts flying off the shelves of campus bookstores.

And both players appreciate the outpouring of support they've received from all over the country. They also understand the importance of living up to the responsibility that comes with that type of attention.

"We definitely always feel like we've represented the university, but now we feel like we represent the nation because everyone wants to know about Virginia Tech and what they're going to do after this great tragedy," Powell said.

They're eager to show the nation how a Hokie responds.

"It's a lot of pressure," Brown said, "but it's not unwanted pressure."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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