August 6, 2016
Former group of football players celebrates 50th anniversary of first practice
The class of 1970 arrived in the fall of 1966, and five decades later, they marvel at all the changes that have taken place

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – A steady rain descended on Blacksburg for three straight days this past week, but nothing compared to the stories that came pouring forth at the Steve Johnson Practice Field on Friday evening.

A group of eight former football players from the Class of 1970, along with two former graduate assistants, returned to campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their very first college football practice. The former players included Joe Tucker, Paul Ripley, Preston Blackburn, Bob Slaughter, Hank Immel, Pete Dawyot, Dave Binko, and Gerald Boykin and the former graduate assistants were Mike Saunders and John Shipley. Larry Creekmore also was in attendance, but did not go to the Friday football practice.

Tucker took the lead in organizing the event. They continued a recent tradition of players returning to campus to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their first practices – a tradition that started roughly five years ago. Last fall, players from the class of 1969 came back.

“After we played, we all went off and we raised our families and had our jobs,” Tucker said. “We went through such an intense experience [as players]. We cried, we bled, we sweated, we won, we lost … it was such a camaraderie. You form a bond. We all went our way, and I just thought, ‘Let’s get back together.’ It’s been really exciting.”

The group arrived on Thursday and enjoyed a dinner Thursday evening. On Friday, they took a tour of the facilities. Then on Friday evening, they attended football practice, where they all got to meet new head coach Justin Fuente afterward. The former players then returned to their respective homes Saturday.

Friday brought forth many memories, particularly of that first practice. It occurred on a hot, August day in 1966 when then-head coach Jerry Claiborne put the team through a rigorous workout.

“You were scared to death,” said Paul Ripley, one of the eight. “If we put on helmets and shorts, I don’t remember that. We went straight out. We never took our helmets off. We weren’t even allowed to unbuckle our chinstraps. You ran on the field. You ran everywhere you went. We did not have water on the practice field. I don’t care what the heat was. If you wanted water, you were weak. It’s just amazing how it’s changed.”

The players all marveled at the changes that have taken place over the years. The changes range from the size of the university’s student body to the construction of all the buildings on campus and to the incredible athletics facilities of today.

Dawyot came to Tech from Long Island in 1966 because he wanted to play and because he liked the small-town atmosphere of Blacksburg. Though he now lives in nearby Salem and gets back to Tech frequently, he still remains in awe of the changes.

“It’s so different now,” Dawyot said. “When we came here, there was nothing here. The stadium had just been built. Tech was maybe 5,500 students and only 600-700 were female. T. Marshall Hahn [former Tech president] was in the early progress of his career. It was a small Southern college. We used to go to Cook’s Cleaners on Sundays during two-a-days and watch the cars pass by. Since then, the college has grown tremendously.”

The athletics facilities today often leave past generations of players in awe. The class of 1970 practiced on the field where the current soccer and lacrosse teams practice, and Lane Stadium had just been built. Dawyot actually helped build Rector Field House during the summers, but now that facility houses the Hokies’ indoor track.

In 1966, the Hokies didn’t have an indoor practice facility. During thunderstorms and in the winter, they practiced in one of the auxiliary gyms behind Cassell Coliseum. They also admired the current football team’s opulent locker room, with its multiple televisions, hot tub, cold tub and sauna.

“What the kids have today, we would have died for,” Dawyot said. “We had these plywood stalls [for lockers] and you’ve have a chicken-wire place where you put valuables. The other thing was we used to have fight with Luke Linden [former equipment manager] to get some decent socks and t-shirts without holes.”

“The facilities are the biggest change,” said Ripley, who lives in Roaonke. “It’s just amazing. A lot of the people who are here this weekend, this is the first time they’ve seen any of it. They’ve gotten it all at once. It’s amazing to me and more amazing to them.”

The former players also noted how detailed Tech’s practice was. The coaches script every single minute of a two-hour practice and the operation runs so crisply. Plus, the former players witnessed the football program’s conditioning and its nutrition plans.

“It’s just so much more sophisticated,” said Tucker, who runs his own architectural firm in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “Things were simpler back then. Conditioning and diet, all those things have changed. The conditioning is so sophisticated.”

The former players credited their teammate, Frank Beamer, for making the football program what it is today. Beamer, two years older than them, served as the Hokies’ head coach for 29 seasons and retired at the end of last season, but they remember him as a defensive back who was slow, yet never out of position.

There were many other stories that came out of the outing, too many to relay. Those stories, both ones from on and off the field, serve as the bond for their friendships that have lasted the past five decades.

And they encourage the current group of Tech players never to take a day for granted.

“Enjoy it,” Dawyot said when asked what his message to the team would be. “It goes so fast. You’re constantly being pulled for time commitments – going to school, practice – that it’s almost hard to remember what’s going on and enjoy the day. Fifty years later, it seems so easy. You remember the good stuff and not the tough times, but you never want to take any of it for granted.”

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