IT IS THE day after the massacre, and Steve Armor walks through the halls of Springfield Delco High School drawing a few incredulous stares from classmates and teachers as he proudly wears his maroon, form-fitting, Virginia Tech shirt, with the orange VT emblazoned on the chest. The prevailing question that comes from everyone: "You're still going there?"
The nation adopted Virginia Tech last month. We all became Hokies for a few days, though, for a trio of local high school athletes, they feel like their commitment to the school has helped the healing.
Armor, a standout wrestler, joins a handful of college recruits across the country who committed to Virginia Tech after the tragic shootings that left 33 people dead on April 16. Locally, Armor will be joined on the beautiful Blacksburg, Va., campus in September by fellow wrestler Dillon Evans, of Council Rock South, and Kelly Lynch, a top soccer player for Clearview High School in South Jersey.
They all put a lot of thought into attending Virginia Tech. But for Armor, the choice came with a few interesting and ironic connections. Debra Armor, Steve's mother, graduated high school with Sylvia Seegrist, who on Oct. 30, 1985, went on a shooting spree at the Springfield Mall that killed three people, including a 2-year-old, and wounded seven others.
The other twist is that Armor and his family had just finished touring the Virginia Tech campus a few days before the shootings occurred.You would think that those eerie coincidences might be enough to dissuade Armor from going to Virginia Tech, yet Debra and her husband, Steve Sr., supported their youngest child's college selection.
Steve committed to Virginia Tech on April 23, along with Evans, calling Hokies wrestling coach Kevin Dresser a week after the shootings. He also had been considering Drexel and West Virginia.
"I loved the Virginia Tech campus, I loved the open fields and stone buildings; it's a pretty amazing campus," says Armor, who recently capped one of the most amazing careers in Delaware County wrestling history by finishing seventh in the state championship at 119 pounds. He wound up as the county's all-time victory leader with a lifetime record of 135-23.
"It really didn't faze my choice that much what happened there. Everyone knew I was the only one going to Virginia Tech in my school, and everyone asked me if I was still going. Before I called coach Dresser to sign, I sat down with my parents and they asked me if it's really what I want to do, and if I'm making the right decision. They both supported me. I don't even associate the two things, Virginia Tech and what happened there. It seems like it happened somewhere else, because I didn't say, 'Oh my God, I can't go there.' "
Debra and Steve Sr. fielded more than a few calls the Monday the shootings happened. Relatives knew that Steve Jr. was leaning toward Virginia Tech.
"I was at work and my sister-in-law had called me when she heard it on the news that there were shootings at Virginia Tech," Debra recalls. "We were just there 2 days earlier. It was just odd that we had just been there and we walked right where the shootings happened. You remember being there. But when you think about it, as a parent, it could have happened anywhere. Steve very much wanted to go there. It didn't change his mind at all, and we weren't about to change it for him. Steve called me from school, so I know it was something on his mind. It freaked him out a little bit, but he might not admit that."
It certainly struck a chord with Steve Sr.
"I was concerned a little bit initially when it first happened," he says. "As much of a fan as I am, I wasn't too crazy about Steve wrestling so far away to begin with. But coach Dresser told me they try to make the program as parent-friendly as possible with the scheduling. But when I heard what happened, I was sending my son there, and there was a concern. There was an engineering major who gave us a tour of the school, and that was my immediate concern, if there was anything happened to him. I found out later he was OK. One of the first questions we heard was, 'What about safety?' He told us about the prisoner escaping [last August, forcing the first day of classes to be cut short], and that was one of the stories that came up when the shootings happened.
"You try to put a positive spin on it, that it will be better now. It was on Steven's shoulders. I'm more the worrywart with me and my wife, but all parents worry. I'm in full support of what Steven did. I'm sure the incident brought Steve even closer to the school."
If anything, Armor, Lynch and Evans say they feel they're headed to the safest campus in America.
A huge poster board, 2-feet-by-4 feet, sits in Kevin Dresser's wrestling office at Virginia Tech. It's signed by every student at Broomfield High School, in Colorado, where 197-pound Hokie wrestling recruit Dave Marone goes to school. It was sent by priority mail.
Virginia Tech has signed 12 wrestlers in this recruiting class. Five committed after the tragedy and Dresser says he was expecting to hear from five more. He received phone calls and e-mails from 175 people within 24 hours after the tragedy took place.
"Initially, everyone in the athletic department here [wondered] how the kids we signed were going to react to this," says Dresser, 44, who was hired at Virginia Tech in April 2006. "But within 24 hours, the amount of contacts with kids we signed and got in touch with; they saw how unique and special this place is. One of the first things I did was call all the kids we signed in the fall, making sure they understood that what happened was not a normal occurrence."
Among the other calls Dresser made were to Evans and Armor, trying to reassure them. Some recruits brought up the tragedy, some did not. Most of the responses Dresser received went something like this: "Coach, we're sorry and is everyone OK?"
"I never had one recruit question whether or not Virginia Tech is a safe place to go to school," Dresser says. "Seth Greenberg, our [men's] basketball coach, had some coaches from other schools call his kids, something really cutthroat, questioning them. We never had that. Not one kid brought up not going here because of this.
"In a weird way, it's really brought a lot of people together. All you have to do is come on this campus, and it's an awesome recruiting tool in itself. It's in the mountains and it has a special hometown feel. What I take from what happened is what anyone takes, and that is if this could happen at Virginia Tech, it can happen anywhere. We're in a healing pattern right now. If there's anywhere in America where 26,000 people can heal together, it's here in Blacksburg, Virginia."
Dillon Evans was at home April 16. He already had called out sick to Council Rock South High School that day when he received a call from one of his best friends, Mike Rappo, who wrestles for North Carolina. Rappo asked if he had been watching the news about what was happening at Virginia Tech.
Evans, like Armor, is one of the top wrestlers in the area. He competed at 160 pounds this season, but he'll go at 149 at Virginia Tech. His lifetime record of 136-38 includes four sectional titles, two district titles and a regional championship. He's also a four-time state qualifier - a rarity - who had narrowed his college choices to Drexel and Virginia Tech. On April 16, Evans still wasn't certain where he was headed.
"At first, I was shocked when I saw what happened at Virginia Tech, then I remember thinking to myself that I really didn't think it was actually happening; I couldn't grasp the magnitude right away," Evans says.
"It hit me once I started watching TV and talking more to my mom. At the time, I was leaning toward going to Virginia Tech, but hadn't committed yet. My parents knew I was leaning toward Virginia Tech. I wanted to make the decision on my own, and then include my parents in the process."
Evans and Armor have become friends. They spoke to each other throughout the recruiting process and they plan to room together.
"Steve and I talked a little bit about what happened there and we both came to the conclusion that it wouldn't affect our decision," Evans says. "It could have happened anywhere in the world, it just so happened to take place there at the school we wanted to go to. But it had nothing to do with the school. In my opinion, the community where I'm from is tight-knit and close, and if anything, this incident made Virginia Tech safer, and closer together. That's important to me, that everyone cares about each other. The environment in that area will be better, after the healing takes over."
Evans received dubious looks from classmates. As a senior athlete, he's frequently asked where he'll be going to school. "I still get this weird look, that, 'You're going there? Are you sure you're going to do that?' Some people think, why would I go there, but I think, why not? I love the place."
Kelly Lynch was a few worlds away when the news came about Virginia Tech. She was at the MGM Studios in Orlando, Fla., on Clearview High School's senior trip, when her mother, Leanne, reached her by cell phone. "My mother wanted to let me know before anyone else did," says Lynch, one of the top female soccer players in the area. She scored 18 goals in 16 games this past season. "I was completely in shock. My jaw dropped when I heard it happened. No one expects that to happen anywhere, and I was praying for those people that were shot and hoping I didn't know anyone who was killed. I was also disgusted that it happened."
Yet Lynch signed her acceptance letter to Virginia Tech on April 17, the very next day. She chose the school over Saint Joseph's, South Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest. She said it will be a very emotional day next season when she first puts on her maroon Virginia Tech jersey with the patch that says, "VT Remembers 4-16-07."
"Not going there wasn't even a discussion," Lynch says. "When I was on the trip, my father [Jack] e-mailed [Virginia Tech] coach [Kelly] Cagle to let her know I wasn't going anywhere. During the senior trip, everyone kept asking me if I was still going to go to Virginia Tech.
"Being at the MGM Studio was a good place to be when I heard, because it was a great place to escape the reality. If anything, I'm more proud to go there and in awe of how everyone at Virginia Tech handled themselves. I'm even more excited to be part of that; to join the family, basically. When a family has a tragedy, you don't run away, you support them. I'm not running away. Everyone in the nation became Hokies. I won't need to pretend, I will be. I can't wait to wear that uniform, because I'll be playing for the victims' families and representing them in everything we do." *