How to be a silent fan

Columnist Zac Elder writes that he could barely contain his excitement in the press box during Duke’s 13-10 upset victory against Virginia Tech last weekend.
Columnist Zac Elder writes that he could barely contain his excitement in the press box during Duke’s 13-10 upset victory against Virginia Tech last weekend.

As soon as I entered the press box in Lane Stadium last weekend I saw a sign making it clear that cheering for either team would result in immediate removal. I have seen these signs and heard similar announcements at every college football game I have covered.

If you have ever been a true sports fan, you know what it's like to scream at the top of your lungs until your voice is hoarse, jump up and down until your calves are sore and pour every ounce of passion and energy into cheering for your team. If you have ever spent time in a press box or media room at a major sporting event, you are aware of the very professional, almost stuffy atmosphere that characterizes the working environment of the sports journalist.

By now, I'm used to this setting, and I can control my fanatical urges to jump and chant and scream for my team.

But it's been a long process, and there have been slip-ups along the way.

Last year I travelled to Blacksburg to watch the 5-1 Blue Devils try to make history—Duke had never beaten Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium and a win would send the Blue Devils to a bowl game for the first time in 18 years. While I sat in the press box preparing to cover the game, I fought to mask my excitement and optimism with a sense of professionalism.

But as the game began, the fan in me quickly started to take control. Duke scored the game's first touchdown. Then the Blue Devils added a field goal, then another field goal and then another touchdown. Before the end of the first quarter, I looked out across the stadium at more than 66,000 Hokies fans sitting in silence, their team in an early 20-0 hole.

Although it appeared that a rout was underway, I didn't stand up and cheer or yell out loud as Duke dominated the early stages of the game. But I definitely got on the nerves of the sullen Virginia Tech student writers sitting next to me in the press box. I could sense their disbelief and anger, but I didn't care—I could not hide my excitement. I was toeing the line between a professional sports writer and a college sports fan, and they weren't happy about it.

Then it all came crashing down, and I watched in horror as the Hokies scored 41 straight points. For the final three quarters of the game, I was a model of professionalism, totally silent. The two Virginia Tech writers smirked as the onslaught worsened. I probably deserved the cool contempt I felt from them for the game's final three quarters, a penance for my lack of self-control during the first quarter. But it was not easy to sit through, and I learned not to wear my emotions on my sleeve while working.

Last weekend I got the opportunity to return to Blacksburg, and the whole experience felt a lot like it did last year.

Like last year, a five-win Blue Devil squad traveled north to try and make history by winning in Lane Stadium. The sixth win would make Duke bowl eligible for the second year in a row, a program first.

And just like last year, the Blue Devils got the better of Virginia Tech to begin the game. At halftime, Duke led 6-0 thanks to two 50-plus-yard field goals by sophomore Ross Martin. The Blue Devil defense held the Hokies scoreless for the entire first half, something not even Alabama's defense could do. Despite the slim lead, things looked pretty good for Duke, and the creeping optimism of a fan began to eclipse my sense of professionalism.

I managed to keep my emotions in check, barely, as the third quarter got underway.

After Anthony Boone's 9-yard touchdown run put Duke up 13-0 midway through the quarter, I was so excited that I could barely sit. But unlike last year, I remained calm, even though it looked like everything was going the Blue Devils' way.

But at the end of the third quarter Virginia Tech marched 99 yards down the field for a touchdown, cutting Duke's lead to six. The Hokie offense started to pick up steam, manufacturing drives that just barely missed in putting points on the board thanks to two blown field goal attempts by Cody Journell. It was beginning to look like the Blue Devils would fall apart like they had a year ago.

Duke's offense was nonexistent, and the defense was holding on by a thread. With 5:09 left to play, Logan Thomas and the Hokie offense took over near midfield, and there was an inevitable feeling that Virginia Tech would score and escape the upset, once again dashing Duke's hopes of a historic win.

But on the second play of the drive, Kelby Brown intercepted a pass from Thomas and everything changed. With momentum in their favor, the Blue Devils held onto the ball for the rest of the game and secured their sixth win and a landmark upset.

Needless to say, I could barely control myself when Brown came down with the ball. I kept quiet, made all the preparations to write my postgame story and then headed down to the field for interviews. Elated on the inside but all business in outward appearance, it was roughly an hour-and-a-half after game's end that I finally left the stadium.

Last year's trip to Blacksburg ended in disappointment and embarrassment, both for myself in the press box and for Duke on the football field. This year the Blue Devils came out on top and I also got the last laugh—outside the press box, of course.


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