The first Virginia road game I attended was against Michigan at the Big House in 1995. I'm not sure that counts, though. The "road trip" was a mile walk from my parents' house to the stadium, I could not believe that UM went down 17-0 to Virginia (who?), and we walked home with a feeling of relief, not triumph, when the Wolverines pulled out an 18-17 win on the last play of the game.
Virginia, of course, went on to hand Florida State its first conference loss in the ACC, grab a share of the ACC Championship, and beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The Barber-led ‘Hoos actually finished one spot ahead of Michigan in the final AP rankings.
For me, though, 1995 was the first year of the Lloyd Carr era, a win over Ohio State, and all part of the run-up to the 1997 National Championship.
A decade later, I'd attended most of UVA's home games with my free student ticket. That is, when they didn't conflict with games I'd rather watch on TV. I'd also written a column in the student newspaper about why ACC football was lame. I was a football fan, sure, and even paid for those season tickets after I graduated, but it was easy to question my allegiance to my dear alma mater.
You see, I've always had a little trouble getting all that worked up about Virginia Tech -- UVA's supposed major rival -- especially before they joined the ACC. I'm not from Virginia, didn't have any friends or family with ties to either school, and didn't even meet anyone who went to Tech until after I graduated from Virginia. Let's be honest, too, in the ten years I've been following Virginia, this hasn't exactly been a balanced football rivalry. And travel to a November game in cold, gray Blacksburg? No thanks.
But then the ACC expanded, and in 2005, we welcomed Boston College to the fold. Here was a football road trip I could get behind.
So the second weekend in October, I headed north to see my ‘Hoos taken on ACC newbie Boston College. The Eagles were 4-1, Virginia was 3-1, and both teams were 1-1 in the ACC. There was every reason to believe it would be a good game, in a good city occupied by good friends and good beer. If only it had gone that smoothly.
A trip along I-95 is never a pleasure. But I arrived in Boston late Friday night excited to be with friends I hadn't seen in awhile, with a couch to crash on, and my orange and blue packed and ready for Saturday.
Then it started raining. And the only time it stopped raining the rest of the weekend was when it started sleeting. Seriously, I've been to games in some weird weather -- 90-plus degrees in Charlottesville in December 2001 stands out, as do a couple of particularly cold, windy, rainy games -- but I have never been so uncomfortable at a sporting event.
And there was something weird about the whole day, too. On the walk to the stadium, there were some nasty words from BC fans and a few of those embarrassing-for-everyone-involved "my school is smarter than your school" exchanges. In the stands, a minister and UVA parent in the group of Virginia fans around me almost came to blows with a Boston College sympathizer who said the Virginia fan was blocking his view by standing. On the field, the game was chippy, if not dirty, from kick off. For two teams who'd played each other only twice before, and not for a couple of decades, we all seemed to be making this pretty personal.
In the third quarter of the game, with the score tied at seven, things got ugly. And it was undeniably Virginia's fault. Tackle Brad Butler cut-blocked defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka from behind. If Butler's intention was not to knock Kiwanuka out of the game, I'm not sure what it was. The play -- and the in-stadium replay -- got the team and the crowd fired up. The ejection of Boston College defensive tackle Al Washington and, eventually, Kiwanuka himself, for retaliatory hits added fuel to the fire.
Boston College went on to win the game 28-17. The Eagles were just angry. Virginia couldn't match them. And for fans in the stands, there was nowhere to hide and no response to the "Virginia is dirty" accusations.
I've never been so glad to get back to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville the following week. The ‘Hoos pulled off a win over Florida State -- the first since that 1995 win -- and, in my memory at least, the sun was shining.
There's something about a road trip that solidifies fandom, even if it's a miserable trip. Virginia and Boston College have played twice more since that game, and while Virginia is still looking for a win, the matchup, for me, has a little something it wouldn't have had I not been there, cold and embarrassed, in 2005.
Traditional rivalries mean something, too. Headed in to Thanksgiving and rivalry weekend at Blacksburg, I give thanks that I'm not a turkey ... or a Hokie.