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Inside The Chart: Lightning Crashes

Sept. 16, 2017

Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart

Georgia Tech learned again this week that Mother Nature has ultimate control over the schedule.

On Monday, the school announced that its game against UCF, scheduled for Saturday night in Orlando, Fla., was canceled due to the continuing effects of Hurricane Irma. The teams will not play a make-up.

For the Yellow Jackets, it marked their first weather-related cancellation since a much-anticipated season opener against No.11 Virginia Tech on Aug. 27, 2000 in Blacksburg, Va. An unexpected bout of rain and lightning — including one infamous bolt to the rental car of an ESPN analyst — forced the teams to call off the game.

Georgia Tech players and staffers have long since dried off from that Sunday night at Lane Stadium. But their memories of the would-be game remain fresh.

“You go from being on this high and pumped up on adrenaline and ready to go and play ball. And now you’re afraid that something’s going to happen to you that’s way out of your control,” said Tony Robinson, a redshirt senior defensive tackle on the team.

The game, billed as the Black Coaches Association Classic, pitted Georgia Tech against the 11th-ranked Hokies, who were coming off a BCS National Championship Game loss to Florida State the year before. It also figured to be the start of a season-long Heisman Trophy campaign for Michael Vick, the Hokies’ brilliant sophomore quarterback. Vick burst onto the scene as a freshman in 1999, piloting a Virginia Tech offense that led the nation in scoring (41.4 points per game).

Two weeks earlier, Sports Illustrated put Vick on the cover of its college football preview edition. In a delightful bit of foreshadowing, Vick was striking a Heisman pose next to a lightning bolt and the title “Mr. Electric.”

“We made a point in practice that week to use a very fast scout team member, and he would be Michael Vick, to prepare us for his potential scrambles all week. Instead of practicing with a throwing quarterback, we were basically practicing with a running back running the ball,” said Merrix Watson, the Yellow Jackets’ redshirt junior defensive tackle from Charleston, S.C.

Georgia Tech had a potent offense of its own in 1999, finishing second in the nation in scoring behind Virginia Tech (40.7 ppg). The Yellow Jackets, though, didn’t have the luxury of a returning Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback. Quite the opposite. The season opener marked the first-career start for junior George Godsey, a Tampa, Fla., native who played sparingly his first two seasons while backing up Joe Hamilton. Hamilton finished second in the 1999 Heisman Trophy voting. Vick finished third.

Skepticism abounded over Godsey’s ability to succeed Hamilton, who had just broken the ACC career record for total offense. His teammates, though, weren’t worried.

“I was always confident in George. He was a totally different athlete than Joe Hamilton was, but George was just able to get it done. He had a bunch of weapons around him,” said tailback Joe Burns.

(Godsey, now a defensive assistant in charge of special projects with the Detroit Lions, was unavailable for an interview.)

As first starts go, Godsey could’ve picked an easier one. By 2000, Virginia Tech had gained a reputation for ferocious defenses under coordinator Bud Foster. A sellout crowd of 56,000 was set to pack Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech’s imposing home fortress.

Yet as the Yellow Jackets warmed up that night, determination, not anxiety, was the prevailing mood.

“We were ready to prove ourselves to the country that we’re going to be a team to deal with,” said Burns, a Thomasville, Ga., native who was entering his redshirt sophomore season.

As the 8:07 p.m. kickoff approached, the skies gave little indication of what lied ahead. The radar, as best as anyone could remember, was clear. A late summer twilight had settled over Lane Stadium.

“It was the day we had anticipated from all the weather reports: sunny and warm,” said Tom Conner, Georgia Tech’s longtime football equipment manager.

Unbeknownst at the time, other history would be made that night. Shortly after 8 p.m., Virginia Tech players rushed onto the field to the pounding guitar riffs of a song they were using for the first time in their pregame entrance. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” has since become a part of game-day legend at Virginia Tech.

It all combined to create a charged atmosphere at Lane Stadium that night. A little too charged, as it turned out. Amid the delirium, Wes Durham, Georgia Tech’s Hall of Fame former radio voice, noticed something ominous in the distance.

“We’re finishing the last segment of pregame before we came back to kick and do that. [Statistician] Tommy Barber was the one that said, `Look at that.’ I looked around the corner. I was like, `Holy cow, I’ve never seen anything that dark,'” Durham recalled from his perch in the press box.

“I had never seen a purple cloud. Like a cloud you thought was purple, it was so dark.”

The Hokies won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. Burns and junior Kelly Campbell lined up to receive the kick. The moment carried extra weight for Burns, who had missed most of the previous season with a broken ankle. Todd McCarthy, Georgia Tech’s assistant athletic director for sports video operations, remembers seeing Virginia Tech’s kicker hold his hand in the air, ready to approach the tee. Lane Stadium crackled with energy, the emotions of the offseason all set to burst on the opening kick.

“Then everything just got crazy,” Burns said.

“It just flipped,” added safety Chris Young.

Right before kickoff, a biblical lightning bolt flashed behind the west stands, directly across from the Georgia Tech bench. The moment was captured by Roanoke Times photographer Eric Brady.

“I can hear it now. It was just like, `Boom!’ It was one of things where you could feel the noise, it was so loud,” said Robinson.

“It looked like the people who were sitting at the top part of the stadium could reach out and touch it. That’s how close it was.”

The umpire took the ball off the tee. Both teams hurried off their sidelines. Wrathful veins of lightning soon began to surround Lane Stadium. One struck the rental car of ESPN analyst Lee Corso, in town for ESPN’s College GameDay, in the Lane Stadium parking lot.

Conner and his managers were more concerned with the safety of their coaches’ electronic gear.

“We scrambled to get our gear off the sidelines and under cover. The headphones had to be disconnected, which is a bit unnerving with lightning popping off,” he said.

The lightning was followed by torrential rain. Durham remembers standing in the press box next to veteran Atlanta Journal-Constitution college football writer Tony Barnhart.

“We couldn’t see the other side of the stadium, it was raining so hard. The lights were on and you still couldn’t see the other side of the stadium. That’s how hard it was coming down. And it came down like that for about 15 minutes,” Durham said.

Stairwells at Lane Stadium turned into waterfalls. The Hokies’ field, never known as a model of drainage, flooded quickly. Fans rushed for cover under Lane Stadium’s metal stands (a Virginia Tech fan reportedly broke his leg in the scrum).

The Yellow Jackets took refuge as well, piling inside a cramped, cinderblock “halftime” room behind their bench. At the time, Lane Stadium’s visiting locker room was in Cassell Coliseum, up a hill from the stadium.

“It was terrible. It was humid, obviously, because the rain started coming in. And we had to keep waiting and waiting. It threw our mood out big-time,” Young said.

“You’re in a small room, cramped up and, at the end of the day, it’s still the beginning of the season. All rooms aren’t as cool as you’d want them to be, especially when you’re fully suited. You’re getting anxious. I’m drinking Gatorade that I don’t really need right now, but hey, it was something to do,” he said.

The rain and lightning continued. Some guessed it lasted for 45 minutes, others for more than an hour. Georgia Tech players grazed inside the halftime room, still hopeful the game would resume. A short time later, officials met with Tech coaches and administrators and told them the field was unplayable due to the flooding. The game was called off.

Georgia Tech players understood the decision, but it still irked them.

“You work all summer trying to get to that day,” Burns said. “That was one game I really wanted to play. We were really looking forward to playing them.”

“We were trying to be the guys that shut down Michael Vick. All we did was get dressed and get back on the bus,” laughed Watson.

First, though, the Yellow Jackets had to make the long trek from their halftime room to the locker room at Cassell Coliseum. The only way to get there was by walking across the field, which by then had turned into a small lake. Conner said the Yellow Jackets sloshed through ankle-deep water on their way back.

Getting out of Blacksburg was another ordeal. The rain and lightning had stopped, but 56,000 fans were all trying to leave town at once. Cars and RV’s choked every road out of Blacksburg. For reasons that no one can quite explain, the Yellow Jackets’ buses didn’t have their customary police escort. Georgia Tech’s traveling party spent hours sitting in traffic, trying in vain to get onto the highway.

“It was brutal,” Durham said. “I want to say it took us three hours to get to the airport. It may have been longer. It wasn’t shorter, I can promise you that.”

Conner did remember one highlight from the traffic jam.

“After we had spent the better part of two hours trying to get off campus, we passed a smoking car on the side of the road which turned out to be Lee Corso’s rental,” he said.

Eventually the Jackets reached the Roanoke airport for their flight back to Atlanta. The tempest of a few hours ago had given way to a clear, starry night. Burns’ most vivid memory was the somewhat odd choice of in-flight movie.

“It was playing `The Perfect Storm,'” he laughed. The film, starring Mark Wahlberg, was about a commercial fishing boat that had been lost at sea during an Atlantic Ocean nor’easter.

The Yellow Jackets returned to Atlanta in the early morning hours, but they didn’t leave the quagmire of the night entirely behind. Virginia Tech lobbied to have the game rescheduled to Dec.1 in Blacksburg; with a potential national title season at hand, the Hokies didn’t want to cost themselves a boost to their BCS formula.

Georgia Tech declined, citing a desire not to play a game the week after its rivalry matchup with Georgia. Head coach George O’Leary agreed with the decision, telling the Associated Press, ”There were three reasons why I wanted to play the game to start with. One was to set the barometer for our team over the offseason and the summer. Two, we have an inexperienced quarterback, and I wanted to get him in an early game. Three, I just like early season games. Now, all three of those reasons are no longer valid.”

That reasoning didn’t sit well with Virginia Tech or the Black Coaches Association, who issued a stern rebuke of the Georgia Tech athletics department.

But like the weather system that crippled their game, the teams moved on. Virginia Tech went 11-1, finishing sixth in the final AP poll. Vick didn’t win the Heisman — he didn’t even place in the top five — but he declared for the NFL Draft at season’s end, where he was selected first overall by the Atlanta Falcons.

The cancellation delayed what turned out to be a breakthrough junior season for Godsey. After a 2-2 start, the Yellow Jackets won their final seven regular-season games. Godsey finished sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.

Rather than make his first career start in front of a hostile road crowd against the defending national runners-up, Godsey instead prepared for the next game on Georgia Tech’s schedule.

The Yellow Jackets’ second opponent that year?



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