Pregame event saw former football players come back to campus

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Normally, on spectacular sunny days in late autumn, Carroll Dale can be found on any of several golf courses near his home in Wise, Virginia, roughly three hours southwest of Blacksburg deep in the heart of true Appalachia.

When it comes to the subject of golf, he doesn’t discriminate. He’ll play pretty much anywhere – and he plays six days a week.

But on Nov. 12, Dale sacrificed his hobby of leisure for one day, traveling to Blacksburg, where he holds a special place in the hearts of members of Hokie Nation. He was the school’s first All-American, the first former Tech player to participate in a Super Bowl, and the first to win a Super Bowl ring.

Scott Hughes, who works in Tech’s Hokie Club – the athletics department’s fundraising group – called Dale and somehow coerced him into cancelling his Saturday tee time. He wanted Dale to come up and be a part of an event for former football letterwinners. Dale obliged.

“I thought, ‘I can make it back for one game,’” Dale said. “Of course, we always follow the Hokies and are hoping for success. It’s always good to get back and to see everybody. I saw a few of my former teammates. It’s always good to have former players come back. It’s great that they’re [the Tech athletics department] trying to promote that.”

Dale was part of an event that saw more than 100 former football players return to Blacksburg. The contingent met in the memorabilia area at Lane Stadium, partook of some cold beverages, ate some light snacks, and more importantly, chatted about the old days. The group of players spanned from the 1950s to early 2000s – more than five decades of gridiron glory packed into one area.

The event – spearheaded by Hughes, a former player himself, Carly Northup (assistant AD for development and external engagement), Sharon McCloskey (former senior associate AD and senior woman administrator), and Kylie McGoldrick (a former Tech softball player who works in the Hokie Club) – was the latest outreach effort by the athletics department to bring former football players back to campus. And the players certainly appreciated the gesture.

“We were in the Hall of Fame area, and I had no idea that it was even there. I had no whereabouts with all that stuff, but to see the history as it progressed and then talking with the guys, it was just fulfilling,” said Derek Smith, a former Tech offensive tackle from 1994-98. “You see the history here and there, and now we’re getting ready to go watch the future.

“I think that’s something … we’re all brothers. We’re all family. It means so much to us. Guys that you haven’t seen for years … it’s like you haven’t missed anything. It’s like you pick it right back up. It’s really nice.”

Smith and Dale were two of many familiar names to return to campus. Others included some of Smith’s former teammates in Josh Redding, Chad Beasley, George DelRicco and Shaine Miles. Will Montgomery also made an appearance. Melendez Byrd and Rusty Pendleton, who played for head coach Frank Beamer during the early part of his tenure, were there. So, too, was Nick Cullen, who caught a touchdown pass in the Hokies’ 38-10 win over Virginia in 1990 – a game that arguably brought the first national attention to the program. Dale and the affable Don Divers, with an uncanny ability to draw a laugh from anyone, represented a contingent from the 1950.

The event marked the third such event in the past six months. The last came back in August when the department and football coach Justin Fuente invited former players to attend one of the current team’s scrimmages and then a cookout afterward.

“That was probably the largest turnout, and it was great,” Smith said. “We had all our families there. I was really proud to see them put forward, as to have that connection with us again and having our families running around. You get to see what our experience was.

“Personally, for me, I was able to walk our [two] girls back to the tunnel to see dad’s name. It was a little selfish on my part as far as closing that loop. It meant a lot to me that I could share that with them.”

The recent one eased some concerns of several former players. The athletics department staff, led by AD Whit Babcock, have made player outreach a priority, but many within the group talked frequently to Kevin Jones, who served as sort of a liaison between the group and the athletics department. Jones, a former All-America tailback, resigned earlier this year, though, to pursue a master’s degree and to concentrate more effort into his own company.

Fuente, however eased some of those concerns with a letter that he penned and mailed letter to former players, insisting that he wanted them to return and be a part of his program. Former players, especially those from Frank Beamer’s tenure, really appreciated that.

“That shows he cares,” Dale said. “That’s part of it – getting the support of everybody.”

“That was one of those steps that I think just solidified what a great man of character he is and how invested he is into Virginia Tech,” Smith agreed. “We want to support them. We’re going to support them.”

Smith and others have expressed their desires to see more done in the way of former player outreach. They, like so many other former players, care deeply and want to remain close to the program.

“There’s a lot of pride,” Smith said. “We’re so proud of where we come from, and it embodies who we are in everything that we do. It means a lot to us.”

Athletics department officials plan on sponsoring more events, with the next one probably occurring at some point during spring practice. Efforts also continue to create a more active and vibrant Monogram Club, and former football player Mike Saunders and others from a wide range of sports – including Amy Wetzel Doolan (women’s basketball), Quinton Nottingham (men’s basketball), Jon Hand (baseball), Blair Nelson (women’s soccer) and Brian Walters (track and field) – have taken the lead.

These are all steps in the right direction. For the past couple of years, the department has used the marketing slogan, “This is Home.” They want that to ring true for fans of all the athletics teams – but they especially want that to be the case for former athletes, many of whom have given so much to build the department into what it is today.

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