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Sibling Rivalry




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When parents have feuding kids move to separate sides of a shared bedroom, it’s supposed to be more peaceful. But it’s also much less fun. For 12 years, West Virginia University and Virginia Tech have stayed on their separate sides, with fans mingling at Thanksgiving, weddings and birthdays but never on the field with the other’s team as the opponent. At Sunday’s (Sept. 3) football game at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., the teams and the fans reunited.

There was the game, which didn’t end so happily for Mountaineers. Virginia Tech won 31-24. 

There were still the glorious moments that had Mountaineer fans rising to their feet and shaking the stadium, like when Gary Jennings caught Will Grier’s pass and ran 60 yards to a touchdown.
But most of the day was in appreciation of the meeting, of one more chance to even the score. The nudging from father-in-law to son-in-law. The teasing of that one family member who chose the other team. The fan shirts worn by siblings though they didn’t go to either school. Old friendships — and new ones — across state lines. The sassy comebacks. The alumni from opposing teams who traveled to the game with each other, and we think had bonds strong enough to make the return journey together, too. 

The alumni and fans we talked to from either team showed that what they want is more of the same. It’s a long wait until 2021 when the teams meet up again, this time in Morgantown. But we made it 12 years. What’s four more?   

Out in the WVU Alumni Association tailgate field, the ground damp from recent rain and the tramping feet of fans, three WVU young fans were playing football with a new VT friend. Benjamin Payne, 12, and Landon Wallace, 10, stop playing to talk strategy outside their makeshift unmarked football field in between parked cars and tailgate tents. 

Landon, from Las Vegas, Nev., is a Mountaineer fan because his grandfather is an alumnus who is invested in the WVU-VT rivalry. He said he’s been a fan for about three years, and what he wanted to see that night was his team “kill Virginia Tech.” 

Benjamin, from Mechanicsville, Va., has been a Hokies fan for as long as he can remember. And for as long as he can remember, there has been no WVU-VT game. 

“It’s been fun,” Benjamin said, “because you’re the only guy at a West Virginia tailgate wearing a Virginia Tech jersey.” 

He wasn’t the only Tech fan at a WVU tailgate. There were clusters of fans, some with their WVU friends, and a few Hokies tents around the edge of the field. But he may have had more riding on it than most. If the Hokies won, a teammate who is a Mountaineer had to wear a VT jersey to football practice. If WVU won, he had to wear that jersey to practice. He wanted everyone to have fun that night. But he also needed a win. 

“I’m not hoping that West Virginia wins,” Benjamin said. “No offense, guys.”

Fans at the WVU Alumni Association tailgate get pumped before the game.

Blake Nelson, a member of the board of directors of the WVU Alumni National Capital Area Chapter in Washington, D.C., planned the alumni tailgate, with food and drink provided by Mountaineer businesses.

Earlier in the weekend, he had driven to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to pick up a buddy.

He would shout “Let’s go, Mountaineers!” out the car window at the clusters of WVU and VT fans. He says everyone waved and smiled. 

“I wish we could do this every year,” he says.

Being from Northern Virginia, he’s got family who support and attended each school. They’ve all been discussing this for six months. And they will be discussing it long after the game. But maybe not right away.

“If we lose, I’m going to shut my phone off,” Nelson said.

But in the event of a Mountaineer win, he planned on texting his family and gloating.

“We talk crap but everyone’s very, very friendly,” Nelson said. 

His life has been caught up in the relationship between two Virginias recently. He enjoys the Big 12 matchups, of course.

“That’s fun,” he says, “but nothing’s like Virginia Tech, right?”

Women at tailgateRock band at tailgate
(LEFT) Longtime fans Barb Slone, Jaci Slone and Leslie German brought some of Morgantown to the VT game. (RIGHT) A self-styled “bipartisan band,” 1060 West Addison has alumni and fans of both teams. From left: Steve McKnight, Sam Murray and Patrick Burns.

He’s not the only resident of the Virginias that feels that way. Barb Slone, of Beckley, W.Va., and her daughter, Jaci Slone, saw the local high school split with some students going to Virginia Tech and others going to WVU.

“I would love to have it back permanently,” Jaci said of the rivalry series.

She runs the Charlotte, N.C., alumni chapter, where she says her tagline is “I’m Jaci, the West Virginia girl.”

Her mom, Barb, started the tradition of flying a Halloween skeleton up high with the WVU flag in the blue lot outside of Mountaineer Field. If you don’t have an identifier, trying to find your friends in a sea of cars is “like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Barb said. Their friends, Ryan and Leslie German, brought “Bones” as it is affectionately known to the Alumni Association tailgate outside FedEx Field.

As Sean Frisbee, president and CEO of the WVU Alumni Association, served Mountaineers from the association’s mobile tailgate trailer, he talked about just how big this event is for the Alumni Association. There were at least 1,500 people at the tailgate, and more were showing up every minute. It’s the biggest crowd at a pregame Alumni Association event since he started working there in 2015.

“It really renews those old traditional feelings of great Mountaineer football,” Frisbee said.

Over in the Orange Lot at FedEx Field, there were some fans who spoke of their devotion in song. Sam Murray, Mountaineer frontman of the band 1060 West Addison, introduced his group as “a bipartisan band” from Fairfax, Va. Some members wore VT clothes and some wore WVU clothes. Their first song was “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

The Look
WVU and VT fans mingled before the game began.

About an hour and a half before kickoff, several Mountaineers reminisced about the highlights leading up to a matchup that began in 1912. It’s a series that the Mountaineers lead 28-23-1.

“I lived through some of the greatest moments in the rivalry,” said WVU alumnus Adam Prather. He and fellow Mountaineer Craig Sharman listed those highlights.

There was that time that Michael Vick led the Hokies to victory in 1999, with the long-remembered 26-yard scramble along the sideline. Then in 2001, though the Mountaineers lost to Tech 35-0, Grant Wiley made an interception during that game that is still talked about.

In 2003, Rasheed Marshall made a 93-yard pass during a game in which the Hokies, then ranked No. 3, were beaten 28-7 in Morgantown. Prather’s friend Colin Tobias remembers that last game in 2005 when Virginia Tech, led by Marcus Vick, defeated the Mountaineers 34-17.

“I’m still mad at Marcus Vick,” Tobias said.

Family TailgateV Tech game
(LEFT) Danielle and Danny Smith look on as their son, Barrett, 2, cheers on his teams.

If there was a theme for the day, it was cracking wise.

Walter and Linda Gaich were in the tailgate lot with their daughter, Tammy, and niece and nephew Robin and Larry Riley. The Gaiches are Mountaineers and the Rileys are Hokies.

What was going to happen that night as they made their way home?

Walter had an idea. “The van we borrowed has a roof rack, so they’ll be riding home on it,” he joked. “It’s always been a great game. It’s the whole experience: having fun tailgating.”

There may be no more honest, and brutal, critic than a toddler. Barrett Smith, 2, might be destined to disappoint one of his parents when it comes to his sports choices.

Danielle Smith, his mother, who is wearing Mountaineer gold, asks him, “Who’s going to win the game?”

There’s a pause.

“Hokies!” he chirps in a soft voice.

His dad asks for a high five.

Barrett and his dad, Danny Smith, are the only two people at the family tailgate wearing Hokies maroon and burnt orange.

His grandma, Cindy Riggins, says that he will cheer for both teams and you hear them walk him through “Go Hokies!” and “Go Mountaineers!”

Danielle’s brother Nick Riggins, a Mountaineer fan, says the divided family, spread out in Elkins, W.Va., Kingwood, W.Va. and Portsmouth, Va., knew this was a game they needed to make.

“We’re glad to see the old rivalries renewed again,” Nick said.

He says he hopes the Mountaineers will come out on top. Danny says he doesn’t hope; he knows VT will win.

So how did a Virginia Tech guy get in the family?

Danielle’s dad is pragmatic.

“You can’t pick your relatives,” Rich Riggins says.

The family agrees that it could have been worse.

Danielle says, “He could have been Pitt.”

Gameboard shot