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The Virginia Tech-Tennessee Rivalry: Why Beating Tennessee Matters

During my childhood, the area in and around Bristol was one with a sharp divide when it came to who to support in the college football world. Those 'House Divided' signs meant to indicate that a husband and wife (or whatever combination makes up the household) are supporters of two diametrically opposed teams would not do justice to how contentious the relationship is between Virginia Tech and Tennessee fans in the Southwest Virginia-Northeast Tennessee area. For one, I only include Northeast Tennessee because there may be a few Hokie fans here and there sprinkled in the area (but from my experience, that is nearly 100 percent TEYN-A-SAY VAWWLLL CUN-TREE! VAWLS FUR LYFE!). But let's be clear, well before you reach the state line, the sight of that uglier, prison work detail orange, often in checkerboard form, is impossible to miss, and the sound of Rocky Top blaring through your eardrums becomes unstoppable. None of this is their fault. They like who they like, and these are the customs of their fan base, and we should respect them for it. But they aren't the only customs that they have, and I'll share those below.

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You see, growing up a Virginia Tech fan during the mid-late '90s was a treat, no doubt, and one that I wouldn't change for anything, but you didn't necessarily share or speak about openly. When I attended my first Virginia Tech basketball game in 1996 in the Cassell (a loss to Xavier wouldn't you know it) with my best friend's father, a former Virginia Tech football player during the Beamer playing days, my rooting fate was decided for me. I was a Hokie. I surmise we've all had an experience at least somewhat like this, and I don't have any ill will for someone else who has that experience that determines their loyalty for another team. It's a beautiful thing and we all think differently. But why then would I be ashamed about or closeted in my Hokie fandom? One reason: Tennessee fans.

Back in 1996, keep in mind, Tech didn't have the football pedigree they do today. The Hokies had only been in the Big East for a few years, a three-year bowl streak was nothing to write home about, and Jim Druckenmiller was not a name that cropped up in the conversations of non-Tech fans. The Vick years had yet to happen. The appearance in the National Championship, the switch to the ACC were both years in the future.

It wasn't until around the start of middle school that my fandom really erupted, throwing caution to the wind: I was an unabashed Tech fan for better or for worse and have been since. And I couldn't have been more on time! The Hokies were fresh off a beating of the Alabama Crimson Tide no less (back when they were not BAMA anymore and were still a couple years away from being BAMA again). The problem with that? Tennessee fans. You see, the Volunteers had just finished a season you're likely to hear about tonight (if you haven't already) and were the reigning national champions, and you see, they DID have the pedigree. They had been there. They had even waxed the Hokies in their previous meeting (1994). And so therefore, Tech having success, being relevant on the national scene, playing the most exciting brand of football at the time (I know some of you millennials will read this with jaws dropped, but yes, Michael Vick in Ricky Bustle's offense and Beamer Ball at its peak was euphoria) AND playing in the national championship game (a game that Tennessee fans will always maintain that THEY should have played in, as a 1-loss team from the SEC was better/more deserving than an undefeated team from the BIG LEAST!) was irrelevant to them. Why? Because they were the Tennessee Vols fans, coming standard with a coat of teflon and a pathological unwillingness to accept intellect or reason in arguments.

This is what I dealt with growing up on a daily basis. Always having to prove something, always having to be prepared to defend myself (and Virginia Tech) against Tennessee and never having the outlet to do so (until 2009 and the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but just like anything else, even the day after the game was over, it was like they had amnesia. What Hokies? They can't beat us! We're TEYN-A-SAY BY GAWD!). That was the greatest night of my life, because for the first time, I felt like the monkey was off my back! I eviscerated my demons! But just like always, it didn't last. Even when the Vols took a nosedive near the end of Phillip Fulmer's coaching career and suffered embarrassing losses that led to losing seasons, Vols fans were resilient as ever. They were still the TEYN-A-SAY VAWLS! You wouldn't know if they were 12-0 or 0-12, and I guess there's something about that to be admired. But at least for a short while, life became a little easier. At least while they still dogged Virginia Tech (and their fans) with regularity, they didn't jump at the chance to identify themselves as Tennessee fans. But the world was still seen through the prism of Tennessee orange.

The perfect example is the Vol/Atlanta Braves fan (you'll see a lot of this) I spoke with the other day, who told me that the Braves were "THE BEST!" After I informed her that the Braves were in last place, not only in the NL East but the ENTIRE NATIONAL LEAGUE, she quipped, "Well they're always going to be the best!" Scratching my head, I did an about face and walked away, knowing that there was nothing that could come of this conversation, because she was operating on the default level of thinking for Tennessee fans: the Talladega Nights/Most Interesting Man in the World/alternate universe logic that what wasn't, was.

Think of the worst SEC fan that you know (the one who is so convinced of their superiority over any other conference/team), or the worst and most grating fan of any sports team in your life and multiply that by a number I think mathematicians are still trying to fathom how to express. And that's what I've had to go through for my entire life as a Southwest Virginian and Virginia Tech fan. That's why I never want to see the Hokies join the SEC! I don't want to become one of them! I've spent my whole life trying not to go out of my way and be a dick to another fan base for no reason. That's why I learned to hate the Tennessee Vols first, and all other teams second. My hate for West Virginia, Virginia or any other team was adopted from the realization that, as a Virginia Tech fan, I wasn't supposed to like that team. Okay, easy enough, I can learn to do that. But public enemy No. 1 was the team with the fans who were in close quarters and went out of their way every day to make you/your team's accomplishments feel insignificant. You were the red-headed step child. They were from GOD'S CONFERENCE: THE SEC! That's just the way it was, and you had to accept and take their putdowns because, as I said before, they're not big on the whole logic and reason thing, just shouting you into submission with their fandom.

So Hokie fans, hopefully that gives you a little bit of the flavor of why this IS a real rivalry (despite not playing each other in the regular season in my lifetime) and why the Hokies MUST win tonight. Because if they don't, it's all we Hokie fans will hear about from Vols fans for now until the end of time (unless they play again and Tech wins, but I don't expect that to factor into the equation). That is what is on the line at the Battle at Bristol. Not just a game, but the pride and mental stability of an entire population of Hokie fans, who want to have something to say in response to an unwittingly overzealous Tennessee fan when they play Rocky Top 10 trillion times. Not that it would matter anyway, but it would certainly make those Hokies (myself included) feel a little bit more warm and fuzzy inside knowing that we're right. That's what we SWVA/NETN Hokie fans have to imagine the Hokies are fighting for tonight.