I'm not sure what I expected when I returned to Huntington, W.Va., for only the third time since my May 2007 graduation. The first time had been to watch a basketball game last winter, and the second time I visited friends during the Easter weekend last spring. This time around, it was homecoming, an event I missed my first year after graduating because I was still in the Army National Guard at the time. As anyone who has ever been in the Guard will tell you, drill weekends are always on the worst possible weekend of the month. At any rate, after missing the first homecoming after my graduation from the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Marshall University, I was excited to attend the second one.
The weather forecast was dreadful. Cold and wet, and the wet threatened to turn to freezing rain and snow on and off. When I came into town, I couldn't help but notice the lack of tailgaters in the parking lots and think to myself that Virginia Tech fans, at my graduate school, would never let a little rain and cold weather stop them from invading the lots early on game day. It'll fill in, I thought.
I saw some old friends before checking into the hotel. My buddy Matt — he was an editor with me at the student-run newspaper, the Parthenon. Great guy, and a heck of a graphic designer. JB and his wife Suzy were there, too. JB and I started off a little rough back in the day, but we ended up forging a great friendship, and he and his long-time girlfriend, Suzy, were married this past spring. I had to miss the wedding, again, National Guard stuff is always scheduled for the worst times, but I heard it was beautiful, and I'm glad to see two people happy together.
Brian was there this weekend, too. I lived beside Brian in the residence hall my freshman year, and we actually met by talking in the showers. I thought he was gay the first month I knew him because he always talked to me in the shower (and always happened to be in there the same time as me). As it turned out, it was all purely coincidental, and Brian and I became very close. We skipped some classes here and there to play video games or sports instead, and I wouldn't trade a minute of it. Pranks on other residents, morning Tae-Bo sessions and late nights of philosophical discussion only touch the surface of the fun Brian and I had.
And of course, Clark, my best friend since kindergarten, was there. Clark and I went through school together, and we shared battalion commander responsibilities our senior year of high school in JROTC. We joined the Guard together, and we even shipped out to basic training together. Then, we spent four years of college driving around for hours at night, eating Taco Bell, playing video games, doing anything nerdy you can possibly think of, and reminiscing about it all along the way.
It was great for my girlfriend Shari and I (did I mention I met her at Marshall too?) to see the old gang again, and though some members have filtered in and out and here and yonder over the years, just hanging out with the people who filled your extended adolescence with so many memories brings out a lot of joy.
So I went to check into the hotel before going to the homecoming football game between the Thundering Herd and the Golden Knights of the University of Central Florida, and I was hit with a wave of nostalgia instantly. You see, campus has changed a lot in the last two years — two new residence halls, a recreation center, some renovations, an engineering building, the frames of new buildings — but overall, Huntington remains the same. From my window I could see Pullman Square, Love Hardware, Mack and Dave's, the Ohio River, and, well, Ohio. It was a good feeling — if only that feeling had lasted through the football game.
We made it to the game, where it was rumored that with wind chill the temperature was just below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The rain drizzled down on the crowd. I was sort of stunned when I first got into the stadium and looked around. I only went to one football game when I attended Marshall, and I forgot what the stadium really looked like from the inside. Well, it's nothing like Lane Stadium at Virginia Tech, that's for sure. It's like this, I could stand at the top of Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, yell down at the players, and they would probably be able to hear me just fine. The view was much, much better than from my seat atop Lane.
For a homecoming game, the turnout was very disappointing. The stadium probably was not even halfway full, and there probably was not more than one or two tents in the parking lot outside the stadium. When I walked over to my seat in the Joan, the people behind me seemed annoyed that I blocked their view by standing in front of them. What were they doing sitting down anyway?!?! The crowd was too loud on offense, and they barely made any noise on defense. And then I remembered why I hadn't been a football fan at Marshall. I love my alma mater, and I think I got a better education there than I could have ever received anywhere else. But when it comes to supporting the home team, well, c'mon... Lane Stadium would be sold out any game of the year, rain or shine, and Marshall couldn't even get the stadium full on homecoming? As the first quarter progressed, I remembered another reason I hadn't taken to football as an undergraduate — Marshall fumbled opportunities left and right, including a return, which UCF recovered on the one-yard line. Rather than following fundamentals and falling on loose balls, the Herd players would run around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to scoop up the ball.
It was like a team full of Sean Glennons coached by a staff full of Bryan Stinesprings. 'Nuff said.
But there were some positive parts about the football game. First, the new Marco mascot suit was revealed (see mugshot above or story from the Herald-Dispatch here). I must say, I like the meaner version as opposed to the goofy buffalo of yesteryear. Also, I saw my old friend Willy "Crazy Hawk" Sutherland. Talk about a genius with videography. And lastly, well, we left before halftime (heck, we were the only ones left in our section, why not...), so we didn't have to see all of the 30-14 beating the Herd took from the worst team in the conference.
So we ended up grabbing some food and just playing video games and watching movies indoors the rest of the evening. Before long, it was time to bed down at the hotel, wake up, and head back to Blacksburg. On the way out, I couldn't help thinking when I saw the old railroad tracks running over the boulevard, the run-down houses and apartment complexes and the graffiti-covered alleyways that it'd be nice to get back to Blacksburg. It's strange to me how a town I loved so much as an undergraduate has become a place that I could never see myself living in now. I'm not sure if I'll end up staying in the Roanoke area either, but I definitely find it classier, cleaner, safer and full of many more opportunities than the place I lived those four years.
And that's what I learned from homecoming. Coming home is never really what you expect. You always think it will be relaxing and that things will be just like they were back then. But places change, and you and I change. Things that once seemed so great just seem like another lifetime ago, as if another person had lived that life. I don't regret ever attending Marshall University, and I had the time of my life those four years in Huntington, W.Va. (well three and a half years, yeah, you guessed it — National Guard stuff again), but going back there made me realize something. I realized that our lives and our friendships are always changing, but nostalgia never dies. We'll always love and appreciate the places and the people that shaped our lives and made us who we are. And every now and then we need a reminder of where we came from — and of where we hope to go.