The cannon that fired fifty feet behind me made literally jump out of my seat.
I was visiting my friends Brendan and Kim at Virginia Tech for a few days. It was Thursday 23rd September 1999. My first college football game for over two years after my time at URI. I still have a copy of the match report in The Roanoke Times from the following day. It was a dizzying experience.
From Brendan’s apartment on the outskirts of Blacksburg, VA, we headed to Lane Stadium, where the home team Virginia Tech Hokies (a colloquial name for a turkey) were taking on the Clemson Tigers, who had travelled from South Carolina. We had walked through the tailgaters, loud and friendly fans who shared stories, beers and burgers with us, barbecued in the stadium car park.
Slightly drunk on the partisan atmosphere (and the beers I’d seen off in the car park), we took our seats amongst a sea of fans wearing maroon and burnt orange, swaying from side to side. They seemed to move as one, like waves growing in size as the anticipation of kick off came.
This was more than I’d bargained for – fifty-five thousand people cheering as the Virginia Tech Hokies took the field. Fifty-five thousand. To add some context, only five Premier League teams in the UK have bigger stadiums. In fact, of the top 10 largest stadiums in the world, eight belong to college football teams. The University of Michigan’s “Big House” holds 113,000 fans, Manchester United’s Old Trafford seats just shy of 75,000.
Virginia Tech were the eighth ranked team in the nation going into this game and traditionally in or around the Top 25 college teams. The team ran on to the pitch, greeted by a cacophony of noise, which reached its peak at the firing of a cannon. An actual cannon. I nearly jumped out of my seat.
Turns out the cannon has been an institution at Lane Stadium since 1963, named “Skipper” as a tribute to John F Kennedy, who was tragically assassinated the day Skipper was transported to the Blacksburg campus. JFK had been a captain of the PT109 (patrol torpedo boat) during World War Two, and nicknamed “Skipper” by his men, so the cannon was named accordingly.
Skipper was built by Ben Harper and Homer Hickam, two cadets, who had attended a rivalry game vs Virginia Military Institute in 1962. VMI had wheeled out “Little John”, a small mortar which fired and inspired their fans to bait the Tech fans with chants of “Where’s Your Cannon?”. One year later, on hearing the VMI fans roar the same question, Skipper was introduced to Lane Stadium with a thunderous blast of gunpowder which apparently blew the hats off many of the VMI cadets. A new tradition began and Skipper has since been fired before the game and every time Virginia Tech score a touchdown.
Virginia Tech started out as an all-male military school and years later, still retains its strong military traditions. The military cadets march down the streets of Blacksburg and into the stadium, taking their seats en masse in the stands. Jessie Fuente, Virgina Tech’s head coach, in a recent ESPN documentary, talks of the impact of the corps, saying “they’re not there to be entertained, they are there to participate and help”. It definitely added to the atmosphere on that balmy September evening.
This was a world away from URI. Led by the screaming cadets, the military band and the cheerleaders imploring the fans to make even more noise for their team, Virginia Tech, holding a slender 14-11 lead into the fourth quarter, pulled away. Coach Frank Beamer summed the game up in an interview with The Roanoke Times: “I think that was the making of a football team on national TV (the game was aired live on ESPN). We lose a 14-point lead on national TV, it’s down to 14-11, and then we are able to take over the game.”
That game was also significant for me as the Virginia Tech quarterback was freshman sensation Michael Vick, who went on to have a colourful NFL career, initially with the Atlanta Falcons, who drafted him as the first overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. Vick was the first NFL quarterback to have 1,000 yards in a season and had six memorable seasons in Atlanta before being caught part running a dog fighting ring and jailed. He since returned to his former heights having paid his dues and signed with the Eagles. Virginia Tech’s offense that day was led by their running game, but you could see flashes of brilliance from Vick as he was learning his role. Clemson struggled to stop him. They may as well have been trying to trap an eel with their bare hands. He had the crowd out of their seats whenever he touched the ball. It was a privilege to watch him.
Vick was the recent subject of a compelling documentary – Vick – which is well worth a watch. He will be seen in hindsight as the player who transformed the quarterback position, paving the way for the likes of Lamar Jackson, the dazzling superstar quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens. Watching him that night at Lane Stadium felt, for me, like history in the making.
What an experience. Colour, life and fun was everywhere. The fans had a historic home win and my new found obsession continued.