3 for 6
I’ve experienced a lot of exhilarating moments at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of the Virginia Tech Hokies Football team. There have been last second wins, unforgettable team intros as night fell, beautiful late summer days in September, and explosive plays on offense that led to touchdowns. What makes these moments all the sweeter is having been a fan of the team since the late 90’s when I began attending Virginia Tech, and seeing all of the ups and downs, and many disappointments the team’s been through. Something good happening is a sweet release after struggling through the often tumultuous waters of college football.
One of the most exciting plays that can happen in college football, in my opinion and I’m guessing many others, is a kick or punt returned for a touchdown. The player receiving the ball, unprotected against an army of defenders doing everything they can to annihilate him, has to summon the courage to ignore impending destruction, finding holes here and there where he can escape, and gain as many yards for the team as he can. It’s hard to imagine what that’s like and what mental approach is needed to be successful in gaining yardage, let alone take the ball all the way and score.
October 21, 2017 was a gorgeous day in Blacksburg. The Hokies were off to strong start to the season, winning an opening game thriller against West Virginia at an NFL stadium and suffering only one loss since to Clemson, who were ranked No. 2 in the country at the time. Today they’d be playing North Carolina, a respected team in the ACC who had won the ACC Coastal title only two years prior. That day the Hokies were wearing special commemorative uniforms to celebrate homecoming as well as the 125th anniversary of Virginia Tech Football. The jerseys were solid orange in the shade of a creamsicle, with white helmets and pants. The jersey color was a nice departure from the usual burnt orange tone that although a traditional Hokies color, wasn’t as appealing. I’m always excited by special uniforms and the bright orange went along with the summer-like mood that surrounded Blacksburg that day.
Greg Stroman, #3 on defense, arrived at Virginia Tech in 2014. In this age of football recruiting where high school players are rated by numbers and stars, he didn’t rank too highly and wasn’t pursued by the so called big dogs of college football who are in the hunt for the national title each season. What Greg did have was a huge heart and the determination to develop his skills over years and years of practicing and film study. Early on, he looked out of place many times on defense, missing assignments and allowing the other team to score touchdowns when maybe they shouldn’t have. In other words, he looked like someone new to playing college defense where the mental side is just as important as how strong of an athlete you are. No one could have predicted at that point that he would become one of the Hokies all time great defensive and special teams players.
By the time his senior season rolled around in 2017, Greg was one of the most highly rated cornerbacks in the ACC. He was quick, smart and had great instincts for finding the ball and going after it like a bird of prey. Greg isn’t the stockiest or most heavily built player out on the field, with a somewhat lanky build, but he used that to his advantage as he darted around the defensive backfield like an impala, his lightweight frame allowing him to cover ground quickly. In addition to his adept skills at pass coverage, Greg was becoming an excellent punt returner, possessing that savvy for it that only some players possess, slowly getting better and better at it as each game went by.
The game that day was getting off to a slow start. Despite the environment that was hard to beat in all of college football, with nearly every fan in the stadium wearing an orange shirt because it was an “orange effect” game, and a crowd eager to cheer their hearts out for a good moment, not much was happening. The Hokies had sputtered on offense, first missing a field goal and then having to punt it away on the next two drives. They did score on a dramatic scoop and score where one of their top defensive lineman picked up a fumble by the UNC quarterback, but that wasn’t how you wanted to be scoring points.
Watching a punt return is organized chaos. Each team switches roles during the play, going from offense to defense and vice versa, and no matter how many practices or drills teams go through, it doesn’t look orderly as everyone does the best they can to perform their role. The punt team does their best to stop the defensive team, holding onto blocks as an attempt to block the kick is made, only to switch to pursuers only seconds later as the ball leaves the kicker’s foot. The receiving team, formerly on defense and the aggressors, now run backwards to the man catching the ball, trying to form a shield around him as the punt team sprints down the field.
Fresh off the scoop and score touchdown, the crowd was hungry for more big moments and a reason to go wild. After UNC received the ensuing kickoff, they sputtered for a little bit on offense, advancing the ball on some Virginia Tech penalties before eventually needing to punt the ball away. At the time, I had no idea what I was about to witness. I guess nobody ever does before an electric play that takes over the whole stadium and causes the ground to shake from the crowd noise. I watched, expecting another routine punt and probably a fair catch before the Hokies took over and began their series on offense.
Virginia Tech didn’t bring any pressure on the punt, as the defensive linemen barely came out of their stances before looking for people to block and running back towards Greg Stroman. The punter caught the ball routinely, the way a college athlete with many hours of practice can and punted the ball on a low trajectory as it tumbled through the air, end over end. Stroman backpedaled to catch the ball, half bobbling it for a fraction of a second. The nearest UNC defender was about 10 yards away as Stroman secured the ball, set his feet and began looking for a path through the army of bodies in front of him who were set on stopping him however they could.
Stroman first started to his right, along the home sideline, and where I was sitting near where he caught the ball, before he quickly changed direction as two defenders approached and subsequently over ran him. There were now 4 UNC defenders within 5 yards of him in hot pursuit. After that initial dodge move, he found a seam between two defenders to his left, accelerating diagonally to his right and along the home sideline, before turning on the jets. His lithe physique exploded into a gallop, the cadence of his knees gracefully becoming quicker and quicker.
As he reached the 35 yard line, he hadn’t reached top speed and there was one man left to beat, the punter. Punters, for all their skill and ability to work under pressure, usually aren’t the athletic equal of a defensive back or punt returner. Stroman did a brief fake to his left before easily running around the punter and putting on the afterburners as he crossed the 40 yard line towards UNC territory.
Moments like this are what makes Lane Stadium so unforgettable. The love for the Hokies runs so deep among us that seeing our team do well is almost like watching a close friend or relative be successful at something. You want it to happen so bad not only because it’s your school and you yearn for them to do well, but you also love the team and want the players to do well. There’s a communal fondness between fans at the game, as though we all already known each other, even if we’ve never met. Stroman was now crossing the 50 and had a clear line for the end zone, yet a pack of defenders were trying to get an angle on him. Lane was exploding with energy as the deafeaning roar of the crowd bounced off its gigantic concrete sides, like a concert hall for football.
Using as much of the field as possible, Stroman sprinted closely along the sideline as players and coaches cheered him on, using every ounce of his speed and now years of experience to bring home 6 points for the Hokies. There was one defender that nearly had an angle on him to make a tackle but was blocked by a fellow Hokie player. As he reached top speed, it was reminiscent of a hungry cheetah giving every last ounce of energy in pursuit of prey, pushing muscles to places they normally wouldn’t go.
By the 20 yard line, he was gone and assured of a score. The crowd was reaching a crescendo. Coach Fuente ran alongside Stroman, hooting and jumping, and the wild party inside Lane began. Stroman triumphantly crossed the goal line, made a dipping motion with his head just as he did so, as if breaking the tape at a track meet, dropped the ball to his side and joined in the celebration.
A big score like this is another chance to fraternize and high five with all of the Hokie fans around you, sharing cheers of joy and jubilation. The “good guys” as some of us call them had scored and were another step closer to bringing home a win for our beloved team and school. One of those rare games where the team rolls over an opponent was beginning and we were all happy to be a part of it. VT reeled off 21 points in the second quarter, 17 in the third and 7 in the fourth, winning the game 59-7. Since that day I can’t recall a more comfortable Tech win against an ACC opponent.
That ended up being a special day of college football and being a Virginia Tech fan at Lane Stadium. The weather and special citrus orange uniforms had set the stage for an exciting game of classic college football moments, and I can still recall it fondly now nearly three years later. Greg Stroman’s electrifying punt return was the type of play that I, as a dyed in the wool Hokies fan, yearn for and all of the joy and release that comes with it. The punt return was a testament to underrated recruits coming into Virginia Tech, working hard and developing into special, game changing players. I was so thankful to have been there that day to see the play and the Hokies win the game.