To many, the face of the school is easy to recognize. You could dress it up however you'd like - a ballcap, a headset, a smile or a scowl - and Frank Beamer is still going to be the one man much of the country associates with Virginia Tech. To many of us, Beamer isn't simply from Blacksburg, Va. - he is Blacksburg, Va.
That's why his impassioned response to the horrors earlier this week should give hope to anyone who's been glued slack-jawed to an all-news channel.
"If I know Virginia Tech people, we'll become tighter, grow closer together, care more for each other, show more respect for each other," the Hokies' football coach said yesterday. "I think this thing in the end, we'll overcome. We're not going to let one person ruin what goes on here every single day at Virginia Tech. All the tenderness, caring, concern for each other. We'll come out of it better than ever."
Initially, I didn't see how sports bore much significance in the aftermath of the shootings, which resulted in 33 deaths and a shock and pain that stings as much today as it did Monday morning.
But for many of us outside of Blacksburg, a school shooting on a college campus is different than one on a high school campus. We already knew Virginia Tech, we already had impressions of the school and we'll continue to follow it in a context that isn't completely enveloped by Monday's massacre.
For much of America, the face of a university is its athletic programs. And listening to Beamer reflected yesterday on both the pain and the resolve of the Virginia Tech community. His words underscore how the school's teams will serve as a large symbol of perseverance.
"This will affect everyone here on campus," said Beamer, 60, who should know. He grew up about an hour from Blacksburg, played football for the Hokies and has coached at his alma mater for the past 20 years. "But the other side of it is, we have to overcome it. We have to be a bigger family than we ever did before. That's what we're going to make sure happens."
We've all seen it before, of course, the way sports can intertwine with our grief. We've seen athletes lose parents and seek solace on a playing field. We've seen fans scatter ashes on ballfields. And we've seen entire communities rally around a sports team. Entire countries, too.
Who will ever forget what baseball did for the nation after the Sept. 11 attacks? We were reminded why we still call the game our national pastime, and people lined up to celebrate baseball as a much-needed distraction from the chaos and grief that hung over the country.
But it wasn't really a distraction. Just as Virginia Tech sports - which resume today with a baseball game against Miami - won't be a distraction. They're much more than that.
I suppose at its simplest level, that's how we regard sport in our society, as an entertainment outlet that provides a light balance from the gravity of our everyday lives. And for those who've never had a rooting interest in a player or team, their understanding probably stops there.
But Beamer knows it's more than that. He knows that a sports team - especially one representing a college - inspires a sense of community that transcends geographical lines and race and class and just about anything else that normally fragments our society.
Before this week, the only connection much of the country had with Blacksburg was Beamer and his Hokies. The coach has more wins than all but two current Division I coaches (Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno), and in the 1999 season he led his team to the national championship game.
Someday soon, new headlines will replace this week's, and the TV pundits will find outrage and sorrow from something else. But Beamer will still represent Blacksburg and his team will still represent Virginia Tech. We'll look to them to help gauge how Virginia Tech is coping and healing.
"I think when we open up against East Carolina in Lane Stadium next fall that there will be a togetherness at that stadium that we've never seen before," Beamer said.
The Hokies' athletic teams will be a major part of the healing process, but not because they'll distract us, not because they'll take our minds off of this week's senseless rampage. Instead, they'll become a rallying point - for fans, students, alumni and parents, and also for an entire nation that's mourning together and that will try to heal together, too.
"We absolutely will not give in to one person coming in here and causing all this pain and suffering," Beamer said. "We're too proud a group of people. We grieve with the families, but we're going to come back stronger than ever."
You believe him not just because he's Frank Beamer and he knows Blacksburg better than most, but because the tight-knit community that revolves around Virginia Tech sports has swelled considerably this week. And as time passes and the school's athletic teams do their part to help a stunned community slowly recover, the Hokies will give us all something to root for.