By Jack Williams
This was a week when you needed a degree in meteorology to cover Georgia Tech sports. Never before have thunder and lightning made so many headlines.
When the Jackets’ scheduled football opener at Virginia Tech Sunday night was cancelled by a severe storm, historians turned to the record books to find out the last time something like that happened.
Veterans in the Georgia Tech Sports Information Office have been unable to uncover any situation prior to last Sunday in which a Yellow Jacket game had to be cancelled. But this reporter (who’s been around more years than he wants to admit), has been involved in cancellations a number of times for various reasons.
Let me emphasize, too, that in a lot of years as sports publicist at Virginia Tech, you get used to bad weather – like 33 inches of snow blanketing the area in one day a few winters ago. Old-timers in Blacksburg used to say, “If you don’t like our weather, just hang around for a while. It’ll change.”
Ice and snow, heavens yes! But never, not once, was there an electrical storm like the one that hit near Lane Stadium Sunday night. That wasn’t a storm. That was an explosion.
Tech Coach George O’Leary said afterward, “Our team dentist (Dr. Aaron King) is our weather guy. He told our coaches, ‘It looked like it blew out early.’ He’s like all weathermen-never right. He’ll be sticking to teeth after this.”
While the lightning popped outside and 56,000 fans ran for shelter, the Georgia Tech football players in their locker room kept their minds focused on one thing- the game of football. And that’s the only good thing that came out of it all.
“It’s not like baseball where guys sit around and play cards,” said Tech quarterback George Godsey. “In football, you have to stay focused on the business at hand. The guys across the scrimmage line are going to be coming after you. You’d better be ready.”
Veteran defensive end Felipe Claybrooks said, “Our coaches continued throughout the long wait to touch on defenses we had planned to use. As a defense, we kept our minds on the game. We had looked forward to playing against a guy like Michael Vick. We have a lot of respect for him and Virginia Tech. It was a big disappointment. To tell the truth, I really would have rather played the game and lost than not to have played at all.”
Meanwhile, all the historians have been hard at work-including this one.
Soon after the game at Blacksburg was cancelled, some Georgia Tech veterans compared the situation to one at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Grant Field in 1980 when Tech played Florida. In the second quarter of that game, lightning forced the teams back to the locker room for a 22-minute break.
Tech had just taken a 6-0 lead when the storm hit. Florida had recorded only three first down in its first five possessions up to that point. But everything changed after the storm. When play resumed, the Gators scored three touchdowns before intermission and eventually won by a score of 45-12.
Georgia Tech coaches were mystified. They could not explain the complete change of fortune. “It looked like someone else had put on our uniforms,” said Bill Curry, Tech head coach at the time.
Once before, lightning and thunder came close to causing cancellation of a Virginia Tech game. The Hokies were playing West Virginia at Morgantown in 1991 when the action was halted for 40 minutes in the third quarter by a severe storm.
The teams went to their respective locker rooms just as they did last Sunday night. Virginia Tech was leading at the time and Coach Frank Beamer reportedly suggested to the officials that the game might have to be called and victory awarded to his team. The officials declined.
The game finally was resumed and Virginia Tech won, 20-14, stopping West Virginia on a goal-line stand at its one-yard line in the closing minute.
In a long sports writing and sports information career, this reporter has seen some other contests halted for various reasons. The most memorable certainly came in 1963 when, as a reporter for The Atlanta Constitution, I traveled by plane to Raleigh-Durham Airport for a football game at Durham between Duke and North Carolina.
When we disembarked from the plane, people in the terminal were gathered around television sets. They were hushed and many had tears in their eyes. A lady turned to me and said, “President Kennedy has just been shot.”
With the President’s death, most games across the country were canceled that weekend. The Duke-North Carolina game was delayed one week so this reporter caught the next plane back to Atlanta.
Some schools chose to play that weekend despite the President’s assassination – and were heavily criticized for it. So was the NFL, which decided that all scheduled professional games would be played.
Fortunately, Georgia Tech had an open date that weekend. After a week of mourning throughout the nation, the Jackets finished the season the next Saturday by defeating arch-rival Georgia, 14-3, in Atlanta.
The strangest cancellation of all may have involved the basketball teams of North Carolina State and North Carolina. In 1947 in the early years of the Everett Case era at N.C. State, the Wolfpack was prepared to face the arch-rival Tar Heels in tiny Carmichael Gymnasium on the N.C. State campus. The game had been heralded for weeks.
Minutes before the tip-off, with people literally hanging from everything except the rafters, the fire marshal appeared on the scene and cancelled the game, declaring the building unsafe for so many people. Many fans balked, but eventually, all quietly went on their way.
Following the surprising cancellation at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech players now have to refocus on a new opponent-Central Florida-for a Saturday night game in Atlanta.
“Our coaches and our seniors have made sure we stay focused,” Claybrooks said. “The other game didn’t happen. We can do nothing about that. We can just look ahead.”
And reporters can sign up for a few new courses in meteorology.