A season lost. Three players indicted for rape. Nearly a year of criticism for everyone associated with Duke lacrosse.
But on this day, none of that seemed to matter.
Playing their first game in 11 months, the Blue Devils opened the 2007 season Saturday with a 17-11 win against Dartmouth in front of a huge crowd cheering their every move.
It was a triumphant return for the Blue Devils, whose season was canceled last spring amid the rape allegations that touched off a debate on sports, race, class and privilege at the elite private university. And it was clear this game was more than a game, from the steady stream of students who poured into Koskinen Stadium on a sunny February afternoon to the throng of reporters covering the event.
"It feels right to be back," said Madolin Archer, mother of senior defenseman Breck Archer. "They've been working toward it for so long and the interruptions certainly have prolonged things. But it's where they should be."
The crowd of 6,485 fans — a few hundred shy of the school record — rivaled that typically drawn by Duke's woeful football team, and they packed the bleachers to support a team that until last year was lost in the shadows of Mike Krzyzewski's storied men's basketball team.
And Duke tried to make it a special event, even bringing in an inflatable tunnel and smoke machines for the players to make a grand entrance to the field.
"I think today will do a lot just getting back on the field to kind of put some of the stuff behind us," said Garrett Wood, a junior biomedical and mechanical engineering major from Charlotte. "Obviously the case is not over, but maybe ... if we can put that behind us and can come out and play a game, I think it'll help a lot."
In many ways, the game was aimed at giving new coach John Danowski and the program a fresh start. Still, there were memories of the past year's turmoil everywhere.
Before the game, the Blue Devils wore black warmup jerseys bearing either No. 6, 13 or 45 — the numbers of charged players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann. Rape charges were dropped against three in December in the troubled case, but they are still charged with sexually assaulting and kidnapping a stripper who told police she was raped by three men in a bathroom during a team party last March.
Meanwhile, fans wore buttons with slogans like "Innocent until proven innocent" and "Fantastic lies" — which is what Evans called the accusations in a defiant statement made the day he was indicted.
More than 60 media credentials were issued to cover the nationally televised game, far more than the handful that might normally cover the team.
And from tailgaters in the parking lot to the students filling the stands, it seemed like everyone was wearing a "Duke lacrosse" T-shirt.
While fans were not allowed to bring signs into the stadium, Duke had installed signs on the fence lining the field with the Latin phrase, "succisa virescit" — the motto for The Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., where Seligmann and three current Blue Devils went to high school. Adopted by the Duke lacrosse program in the preseason, it means "When cut down, it grows back stronger."
"It really makes me proud to see them come out and give this team support," Duke athletics director Joe Alleva said of the fans. "It's what I hoped for, for sure."