Lane Stadium’s lights illuminated the August night. A packed house roared, its hunger for football to be sated finally. Referee Dan Blum raised his arm to begin play. Joe Burns waited to receive the kickoff to open Georgia Tech’s 2000 season.
Whatever happens when Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech meet Monday night in Blacksburg, Va. in the season opener for both teams, nothing – or hopefully nothing – can match the singular manner that the rest of that night played out, 12 years ago Monday.
“Just to be that close to receiving the kickoff and then have everything change, that was a bad feeling,” Burns said.
In short, lightning struck moments before the ball was to be kicked off, leading Blum to wave both teams off the field. As both teams and some 56,000 fans waited out the downpour, the field was flooded and rendered unplayable. After a summer’s buildup for the BCA Classic, between the Yellow Jackets and the No. 10 Hokies and Michael Vick, the game was postponed and ultimately canceled. The Georgia Tech media guide lists no other canceled game in the team’s 119-year history.
And Lee Corso’s car got fried by a lightning bolt.
Like the Jackets this season, the prospect of opening against the Hokies on national television fueled their summer workouts. Safety Jeremy Muyres remembered pushing through extra work with his fellow defensive backs, motivated by the thought of taking on Vick. In fall camp, the defense honed its open-field tackling to be ready for Vick’s speed and quickness. A game plan that included a “spy” to mirror and contain Vick was readied. Tech, which had gone 8-4 in Joe Hamilton’s senior season in 1999 and now would debut George Godsey, was ready to test itself.
Coach George O’Leary’s staff, which included future head coaches Ralph Friedgen, Ted Roof and Bill O’Brien, worked the Jackets into a froth.
“I remember how hype the sideline was,” said Muyres, now a physical education teacher and assistant football coach at Norcross High. “You just know on the sideline in pregame warm-ups, everybody’s moving a little bit quicker and screaming a little bit louder, and it was one of those games.”
From his perch in the press box, Tech play-by-play man Wes Durham saw a purple cloud off in the distance. Durham, who got his start at nearby Radford University, turned to his color man, Kim King, and said, “I’ve lived here for three years. I don’t like our chances.” Sure enough, lightning creased the sky just before kickoff.
“I definitely remember it,” Burns said. “It was behind me, but it was so loud.”
Both teams got off the field as sheets of rain fell. On ESPN, the announcers killed time. Lee Corso, who had delighted Virginia Tech fans before the 1999 season by correctly predicting that the Hokies would reach the national championship game, did an about-face. He picked Florida State and Kansas State to meet for the 2000 title. Just a couple minutes later, a lightning bolt struck a parking lot outside the stadium. Off stage, Corso pieced together that his rental car had been hit.
Said Corso, “I ran back on the stage and I said, ‘I don’t know what a Hokie is, but God is one of them. Go, Virginia Tech!’”
A long wait ended with the decision that no game would be played that night. Jackets players lobbied O’Leary, pleading for more time. He told them it was out of his hands. The team packed up, got on the bus and then sat in a traffic jam for two hours. The disappointment over opportunity lost was palpable.
Said Burns, who now runs a high school all-star game and recruiting guidance program, “I’ll never forget that feeling.”
The quagmire that was drowning the Lane Stadium field compared favorably with the one that promoter Rick Giles was wading through. Contractual issues with both schools and ESPN had to be sorted out. Giles’ company, the Gazelle Group, refunded the tickets, so his office was besieged with soggy ticket stubs for weeks – including tickets sent by fans that were either counterfeit or from other games.
Giles said Monday that officials from both schools verbally agreed that night to play the game that December, but both backed out in coming days.
With no revenue from ticket sales on top of legal fees and promotional expenses, Giles took a literal and figurative bath.
“I don’t want to quote any figures,” Giles said. “It’s so long ago, that part about it, I think I’ve conveniently forgotten.”
Giles returned to his office from Blacksburg to find a recent copy of Sports Illustrated lying on his desk. The cover shot featured Vick, titled “Mr. Electric.” Right next to Vick’s left foot, foreshadowing about 1 billion volts of SI cover jinx, was a special-effects lightning bolt.
The cover and a photo of the lightning bolt striking outside Lane Stadium are framed together in his office.
Said Giles, “It was a mess.”
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog