BLACKSBURG, Va. – Standing in the tunnel before the game, eager to absorb the emotion of a different kind of day for Virginia Tech football and his first as a captain, linebacker Xavier Adibi was surprised by how hard it all hit him.
"Man, right when 'Sandman' started playing and I saw everybody jumping around, I just got goosebumps all over my body and I couldn't hold back my emotion," Adibi said.
"I just turned back and told my teammates, 'This is what we came here for. We're playing for all 32 families. Just go out there and give it your all,"' he said.
The Hokies did that, beating East Carolina 17-7, on a day unlike any other in this southwestern Virginia town still recovering from the worst mass shooting in United States history and counting on its beloved football team to aid the healing process.
The team admittedly felt the need to do something special, especially as it started slowly and quarterback Sean Glennon had a hard time making the plays he needed.
"There was so much buildup to this game and we were looking forward to so much and we just wanted to come out here and put on a show for the fans and make this a memorable game in two ways," Glennon said. "One for what happened beforehand, and two for the unbelievable victory we had. Unfortunately we didn't give them that."
Long before the kickoff, the smell of barbecuing was in the air, music was playing and footballs were being tossed around, and emotions were evident all around.
The sign draped over the windshield of Mike Zell's Escalade thanked East Carolina for supporting his alma mater, and his tears showed that Zell is still hurting.
"Today is a pretty emotional thing, just coming back for the first time since all this happened," the 1977 graduate of Virginia Tech said, his eyes quickly welling up to overflowing with tears. "All the stuff that occurred, it's just overwhelming."
For Zell, 53, and many others, the No. 9 Hokies' much anticipated season opener against East Carolina was more than the start of a new season; it was a new beginning, a time to remember and honor the 32 students and faculty members killed by a deranged student who then took his own life last April, and then a time to move on.
"All the 32 (victims) were buried and their families grieved, but this is really, for all the people coming back to Blacksburg, this is like a funeral service, this is like a memorial," Zell, of northern Virginia, said, pausing to dab both of his eyes.
It was one that everyone took part in, too.
Fans lined up five, 10, even 15 deep on both sides of the street, most wearing the Hokies' maroon and orange colors, as the team once known as the Fighting Gobblers exited buses two hours before kickoff and walked down the street to the locker room.
The fans called out "Let's go Hokies" and sounded their turkey callers, and many held signs expressing thanks to supporters. One read, "GOD is a Hokie."
Ronnie Thompson, 63, of Blacksburg, said the team's healing powers are for real.
"It's the secret to Virginia Tech football," he said while relaxing at a tailgate party just after the team got its rousing welcome. "It could make us all well."
The game was preceded by a ceremony that thanked East Carolina for a $100,000 donation to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, included a tribute video, recognition of first responders, a moment of silence and a flyover by two F-15 fighter jets.
Fans were eager to see the ceremony, and then to get down to playing the brand of football that made the school and the Hokies known long before the killings.
"We're going to go through the motions, and we're going to cry," Thompson's wife, Sharon, said. "Then we're going to jump up and down and go play football and we're going to move on from here. We'll never forget, but it's time to move on."
Zell, whose daughter Alexis decided to transfer to Virginia Tech before the massacre, wasn't sure he was ready to come back yet, but decided not to put it off.
"I did. I did. This is a healing process, and the healing began shortly after it happened, but this is a healing process and this is part of it," he said. "Everybody in still grieving. We're moving on with our lives, but it's still a grieving process."
His tears, he said, were as much tears of thanks as they were of sadness.
"It's just the absolute support of it all, the outpouring of all the people who never even knew Virginia Tech was on the map," he said. "Coming down here, there were people just beeping and waving, just positive stuff. It was just so great to feel it."
In the end, the Hokies hadn't played great, but as the team gathered in front of the band to sing the alma mater, they did it knowing they had at least done their part.
"It's a relief that we made the community proud," said "Macho" Harris, whose interception TD gave them a 10-7 lead. "We got the victory, and that made them happy."