It doesn’t take much to put D.J. Parker back in that moment when he wondered if all the clawing, elbowing and, yes, groping would ever stop. Just mention the Virginia Tech-West Virginia game, and he returns to the bottom of that pile.
The physical scars have long since healed, but the mental snapshots – some not-so pleasant – from a rivalry that has laid dormant for a dozen years have never left. Though Sunday night’s game matching No. 21 Tech and No. 22 West Virginia in Landover, Md., may amount to a daunting challenge to open the season for players who were in elementary school the last time the programs met, it’s a renewal of a rivalry that meant so much more to an older set.
When Tech and West Virginia last played, it was 2005, and Tech was two years removed from sharing Big East Conference membership with the Mountaineers. Both schools knew the 51st meeting of the teams would be the last for the foreseeable future. There was a finality to the bragging rights that were on the line.
With Tech leading 17-14 late in the second quarter, Parker managed got his hands on a punt return that was muffed by West Virginia’s Antonio Lewis. Parker fell on it and immediately knew he was in trouble as a sea of players drowned him on the turf surface of Mountaineer Field.
“I paid the price for it,” said Parker, who was a two-year starting safety at Tech. “I came out tough with it, but they were definitely working on me – more than usual when I was at the bottom of a pile. I caught a rib shot, got my ankle twisted, got pinched. There was a lot going on up under there, man.
“I was balled up in the fetal position just holding on to that ball. I felt hands going everywhere. I mean, everywhere. I was violated. That’s how they were – very scrappy, very tough. They didn’t like us and we didn’t like them. That’s just how it was.”
Parker emerged OK, though, and Tech eventually won that last meeting 34-17, but he was among the many Tech players who wondered before kickoff if they would avoid injury inside the stadium – and not always at the hands of West Virginia’s players.
WVU fans back in the days of the rivalry – the teams played every year from 1973 to 2005, and before that, another 18 times dating back to 1912 – were often a legitimate threat, according to some former Tech players and current assistant coaches.
“You’re going to get 100 middle fingers riding to the game on the bus,” said Bryan Randall, who played quarterback at Tech from 2001-2004, splitting four games against West Virginia in his career. “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. There’s going to be something obscene said or done.
“I probably disliked West Virginia when I was playing more than Virginia. That (West Virginia) rivalry meant more to me. It was something about West Virginia that just irked me.”
Of course, the most infamous obscene gesture in the rivalry was spawned from the 2005 game and didn’t come from the Mountaineer faithful.
Former Tech quarterback Marcus Vick flipped the gesture to West Virginia fans during the game, then issued an apology after the incident.
Middle fingers don’t hurt, but coins, airplane bottles filled with yellow mystery liquid, ice and batteries raining down on players’ heads can leave a mark. Parker still remembers a familiar refrain he heard on the Mountaineer Field sideline from defensive line coach Charley Wiles.
“I remember Coach Wiles yelling, ‘Keep your helmets on. Keep your helmets on … ’ ” Parker said. “You could literally look down on the ground at your feet standing on the sideline and pick up a dollar in change – quarters, nickles, dimes down there, mixed in with AA batteries.”
While the rivalry has faded naturally over time, coinciding with Tech’s departure from the Big East and subsequent membership in 2004 in the ACC, it’ll never completely die for those that took part in the heyday of the bad blood.
Wiles, defensive coordinator Bud Foster and former Tech center Ryan Shuman, who now works with the Hokies’ strength and conditioning staff, were recently enlisted by head coach Justin Fuente to educate current players about the rivalry.
Foster regaled the kids with stories of Tech’s 12-10 win in 1989 at No. 9 West Virginia, a victory that marked Tech’s first against an opponent in the Associated Press top 10 during Frank Beamer’s coaching tenure.
Foster’s chest still swells when he talks about his defense shutting down WVU quarterback Major Harris, a Heisman Trophy candidate in ’89 who threw for just 101 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions and was held to 22 yards rushing in the loss to Tech.
Keeping the bragging rights, and the Black Diamond Trophy that was rewarded to the winner of the game from 1997 through 2005 in Blacksburg means plenty to Foster.
“I know where I live; I’m surrounded by Mountaineers,” Foster said. “I know this: There’ll be blue and gold flying for a year or more, depending on the outcome of that game, or I’ll fly my flag proudly.”
Though Tech won nine of the last 12 meetings, none was bigger than the No. 3 Hokies’ 22-20 win in 1999 at West Virginia. Quarterback Michael Vick ran for 26 yards on a second-and-one from Tech’s 38 with 23 seconds left, setting up Shayne Graham’s 44-yard game-winning field goal. It preserved the season, one that eventually ended up with Tech losing to Florida State in the BCS national championship game.
Like Foster, Beamer remembers that ’99 game fondly as one of his favorites in the rivalry. Beamer and former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, who are close friends, will get to enjoy Sunday’s game as honorary captains.
If Beamer had it his way, this game would be a regular occurrence again.
“I think it’s a game that needs to be played as often as possible, because you’re the next state over and we both have great fan bases,” Beamer said. “They’re going to fill our stadium and we’re going to fill their stadium. There are so many positives about playing this game …”