BLACKSBURG, Va. — BLACKSBURG, Va. -- It was the end of a late-summer practice, and Virginia Tech football players pulled off their jerseys and shoulder pads. Two team assistants carefully removed and folded a flag that had been suspended from an observation tower high above the practice fields.
The flag, featuring a burnt-orange ribbon on a black background, is routinely unfurled at practice to pay homage to the 32 victims of a student's April 16 campus rampage - the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
As much as jerseys and pads, the memory of that horrific day has become part of Virginia Tech's 2007 football story.
Football has long been central to the school's cohesion - its sense of unity - and never more so than this season.
Rather than try to run from it, the Hokies, a preseason top-10 pick by most prognosticators, say they've embraced their role as campus healers.
"This is a football college," quarterback Sean Glennon says unapologetically. "They come out to watch us, and their favorite time of year is the fall. We know we're a big part of healing this community, getting the fans back together happy and unified again. We're accepting that role."
No football team members were among the victims when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 members of the campus community and then himself. Like countless others, players spent anxious moments calling and text messaging to account for their friends' whereabouts.
Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer later met with and tried to console victims' families.
When the Hokies open their season Saturday at home against East Carolina, their fans will have the opportunity not only to exhort their team but to vent feelings left over from a day that some students call simply "4-16."
It's all expected to produce a powerful emotional blend at 66,233-capacity Lane Stadium.
"I know for a fact this ECU game is going to be one of the craziest environments I've ever been around in college football," said redshirt senior Xavier Adibi, a big-play linebacker on a defense that allowed 11 points per game last season, best in the nation.
Said running back Branden Ore, who rushed for 1,137 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore: "Anytime you play at Lane it's crazy, and this'll bring it out even more."
Game-day ceremonies will focus on the dead, who are memorialized by stones on campus engraved with each victim's name. East Carolina is to present a $100,000 check from its athletic department and educational foundation to a memorial fund.
"I think ever since April 16, Tech people have just wanted to be with other Tech people to share feelings and tell them how much you care and hug each other," said Beamer, who enters his 21st season as Virginia Tech's head coach.
"Gathering in that stadium - sixty-some-thousand people - is a chance for Tech people to be together. I think they just want to rally and say, 'Look, we're not going to let one evidently very sick [gunman] destroy what we're all about here at Virginia Tech.' I think we'll see a togetherness and a caring like never before from Tech people," Beamer said.
Not only must opposing coaches deal with the Hokies and their top-notch defense, they must contend with a potential wellspring of emotion.
"They're hard enough to play, but then you hear quotes about how they're playing for the community and how no game is more important than East Carolina," said Skip Holtz, coach of the Pirates.
"Well, that's not what I wanted to hear," joked Holtz, the son of football commentator and former coach Lou Holtz.
Turning serious, Holtz said: "There's a sensitivity there. We've talked to the team about it and there's no doubt it'll be very emotional for the Virginia Tech community. But at the end of the ceremony, they're going to put the ball on the tee and we're going to play."
Emotion in athletics can sometimes backfire. Gary Bennett, a psychologist for the Virginia Tech athletic department, said he could not have imagined the football team playing in the charged atmosphere immediately after the shootings.
On the day after the shootings, thousands of people gathered at Lane Stadium to watch a broadcast of President Bush and others speaking at a filled-to-capacity campus service nearby. Many students wore the school colors and some chanted, "Let's go Hokies!"
"Four months ago that emotion would have been a distraction for a lot of people," Bennett said. "I think now enough time has passed. I think it's helped the team feel a greater connection to the larger Virginia Tech community, to feel this is one part the team can play."
It's a role the players seem to relish. On the afternoon of Aug. 17, team members donned maroon shorts and gray T-shirts with orange letters reading "None of us is as good as all of us." They gathered in a parking lot near the stadium and spent two hours washing cars in return for about $4,000 in donations to the memorial fund.
"I think this probably brings everyone closer together," said Ore, after hosing down a white Honda as his teammates playfully pointed out spots he had missed.
Said offensive tackle Duane Brown, who joined Ore at the car wash: "Just playing for the families of the victims and the victims themselves is added motivation for us, not so much pressure. "
Virginia Tech, which returns eight starters each on offense and defense, recorded its third straight season of 10 or more wins in 2006. The Hokies beat eventual Atlantic Coast Conference champion Wake Forest but lost to Georgia Tech and Boston College - and to Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl - to finish 10-3.
Glennon, a redshirt junior, seems to accept that many of the questions about the Hokies center on him. He threw for more than 2,000 yards in 2006 but had as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes.
Asked if the offense will improve this season, Glennon laughed before replying. "We'd better. I'm a year older, our receivers are seniors, Branden Ore is a year older. If we're not better, there's something wrong. "
In Ore, Glennon has the luxury of a tailback who had two 200-yard rushing games last season. He also has a defense likely to keep the Hokies in most contests.
"Anytime you've got a good defense it gives you a chance to be there in the fourth quarter," Beamer said. "If you get it to the fourth quarter, you've got a chance to win it."
College football analyst Phil Steele said the defense "could be their best since their 1999 edition which got them to the national title game. The last three years they have had just five, six and five starters returning but this season have eight back."
After facing East Carolina, the Hokies travel to LSU, which Steele sees as a key game. If they beat the Tigers, Steele says the Hokies could rise to No. 2 in the polls and be favored in the rest of their games.
Beamer says there's reason to ignore the forecasts. Consider last season, he says, when Wake Forest defied predictions and won the ACC.
"The same people who picked us first this year are the same people who picked Wake Forest last last year," Beamer said.
Beamer knows the Hokies will be sentimental favorites around the country. "But I tell our players that people want to pull for you, but they want to like what they're watching. They want to be proud of what they're pulling for."