College Football's Real Road Warriors
By Bill Roth
When Virginia Tech graduate Richie Weldon was offered a position as a Microsoft Program Manager this past spring, he jumped at the opportunity.
But when informed the job was based in Suzhou, China, he had a brief pause. Not only because the job was thousands of miles away in a foreign country halfway around the world. And not just because he’d have to move all of his belongings all the way to China.
“My first thought was “how am I going to make the Virginia Tech-Clemson game?” Weldon recalled.
How did he do it? And why do Weldon and other college football fans around the country (and world) show this passion and loyalty to their teams?
For many college football fans, the bond with their school and their team is stronger than the thousands of miles (and dollars) it takes to see their team play just a single game.
“I decided to buy the plane ticket back in August,” Weldon said. “It was $1,800 round trip. Shanghai-Pudong to Roanoke. I love my Hokies. I love my friends. I wasn’t going to miss that game. Clemson? Defending National Champions? I was not going to miss that game.”
Weldon has been a season ticket holder at Virginia Tech since 2003. Even when he lived in Seattle and San Francisco, he kept his tickets and would make several games each season. But Suzhou, China? That presented a much bigger challenge.
Weldon went straight from work at Microsoft on Friday afternoon to the airport in Shanghai. It would be the start of a long, long journey.
“It’s a long trip. I just woke up somewhere over the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Just cracked the shade and see nothing but black out the window. Hour after hour. I’m Jonesing for a smoked turkey leg.”
Weldon said he left the airport in Shanghai at 12:30 a.m. on Friday and landed in San Francisco at 9 p.m. local time. Then, he boarded a second red-eye flight to Dulles for the connection to Roanoke. The total travel time to Roanoke: A staggering 26 hours.
Who takes two red-eye flights on the same night, one across the Pacific and then another across the USA just to see a football game?
"I do," Weldon said.
“I got really excited when I landed at Dulles. That’s where I started to see other people wearing VT gear.”
Why do it?
“It gives you a sense of belonging. It’s family. It’s home. The connection doesn’t leave once you graduate. There’s something always pulling you back here,” Weldon said.
Bill Atwood can relate.
The 1987 Virginia Tech graduate, now the Principal of Pulaski (Va.) Middle School, has attended every Hokies’ game (home, away and neutral), since 2004. Saturday night’s Virginia Tech game at Miami will be his 183rd in a row.
“Tech is a big family. When you’re in the stands on the road, and you’re outnumbered and with other Hokies, it creates this amazing bonding feeling,” Atwood said.
“To be honest, going on the road is more fun than home games because the people see your Tech colors and come up and talk before the game. You start to recognize people in the stands at road games. I actually meet more Hokies at the road stadiums.”
It’s fun, but it’s not cheap.
“I spend $5,000-$6,000 per year in travel,” Atwood said. “So, yeah since the streak started, that’s probably $75k. Plus another $40k to the Hokie Club and for tickets. That would add an addition to the house. Or buy a vacation house.”
“But these are my vacation days,” he said. “This is my annual vacation. I just split it up on Virginia Tech road football games.”
And over the years, Atwood has learned little tricks about various cities.
“For example, I know exactly how to handle BC. Parking there is bad. But you park in the Needham Satellite Lot and they have a shuttle that runs to the stadium. That’s the way to handle BC. Don’t try to park on the street,” he said.
“When you fly through Atlanta on a Friday afternoon, you see all the fans in their colors of the ACC and SEC schools. You see these groups of people from Arkansas or LSU or Tennessee. Fans traveling to their game. You visit with them and everyone is so excited on Friday. Then on Sunday, you see ‘em again and you can tell right away if they won or lost. If they won, they’re still wearing their colors and are so happy to talk about the win.
And if they lost?
“People are still friendly and want to talk about the game. There are a lot of us from all these schools. The Atlanta airport is college football’s social hub every weekend.”
It was at Hartsfield and at Charlotte's Douglas Airport where Atwood learned he wasn't alone. Between the Cinnabon stand and the Delta Sky Club, Atwood saw hundreds of other similarly-obsessed road warriors.
Holy crap! There are other people Just ... Like ... Us!
They might be wearing Texas A&M hoodies or Florida State polos, but they were there, transferring from concourse to concourse to catch that connecting flight to Lexington or Gainesville or College Station. They love college football. They love to spend time with their friends. And they have the time and resources to travel.
And it's here where college football's true road warrior share their stories about their most memorable excursions.
As for Atwood, he can rattle off his favorite Virginia Tech trips with ease:
Most memorable: Ohio State, 2014.
Nicest Fans: Nebraska, 2008.
Best Atmosphere: LSU, 2007.
Best win: 1995 Sugar Bowl or 2004 at Miami.
Any bad experiences?
“West Virginia in 2003,” Atwood said. “I felt in danger. Only time in my life that I felt that way. Walking out of the stadium, fans were throwing airplane bottles off the back of the upper deck down on to the sidewalk. That was scary. I’d go back there, but it would have to be a day game. And if you go there, you can’t wear Hokie colors. Just wear jeans and a generic t-shirt there.”
Atwood says the logistics of planning six road trips every fall start a year or two in advance.
“I am a season ticket holder at ODU but I will not go to any of their games this year,” Atwood said. “I bought season tickets there because Virginia Tech will play there on September 22, 2018 and there are less than 25,000 seats at ODU.”
But as an ODU season ticket holder, he’ll have the first option to buy ‘em again in 2018. Thus, Atwood will have great seats for the Virginia Tech-ODU game next year.
Bill managed to sell most of his ODU tickets this year, “but I lost $60 on the season ticket purchase. It’s worth it. The Tech- ODU ticket will not be easy to find in 2018."
Why does he do it?
“The experience has nothing to do with wins and losses,” he said. “Football is what we did as a family when I was a kid. I grew up in Wise County in the small town of Coeburn. Really small town. In fact, there were more people living in my freshman dorm, (Pritchard Hall) than live in Coeburn, Virginia. You get this close feeling with everyone. And so now, 30 years later, with other Hokies, it creates this same, amazing bonding feeling every week.”
Weldon agrees that the game itself isn’t the reason for the dedication.
“The wins and losses don’t matter. It’s the people that I come back to see,” he said. After the Clemson-Virginia Tech game, Weldon left Lane Stadium for the airport in Roanoke. The return trip to Shanghai would be nearly 30-hours.
“I’ve been through all the United Movies. I’ve downloaded three seasons worth of House of Cards,” he texted from his United flight back to China.
Weldon spent nearly 60 hours to fly 16,000 miles and spent several thousand dollars to see a single football game.
Would he do it again?
“I can’t wait for next year,” Weldon said. "October 6, 2018. Notre Dame at Virginia Tech. I’ll be there.”