“Game ball! Touch the homecoming game ball!”
Earlier this week, three Army ROTC students from the Ranger Company, dressed in black T-shirts, black shorts, and reflective belts, ran up the sidewalk on Kent Street, holding out a football. Some who passed them looked perplexed.
Others, like Andrew Adams who was walking to class, reached out to touch the leather-skinned ball as it went by him.
“If someone runs by me and says ‘touch the ball,’ I’m going to do it,” said Adams, a first-year student at Virginia Tech.
But this isn’t just any football, and it isn’t just any run through campus.
It is one of the footballs that will be used during the Hokie’s Saturday Homecoming game against the University of Pittsburgh. This annual running-the-game-ball ritual is a Ranger Company tradition that has continued, in various forms, for more than 40 years.
With a van that followed the route, the runners rotated as they covered the approximately 42-mile distance.
In 1982, the group took the tradition farther. For the Oyster Bowl that year in Norfolk, Virginia, the cadets ran 290 miles along U.S. 460, relay style. They ran through the night, while taking turns to rest in a van.
Once the Hokies stopped playing the annual VMI football game in Roanoke, the Ranger Company’s Game-Ball Run transitioned to a 100-mile run around campus during the week leading before the homecoming game.
This past week, 18 Ranger Company cadets logged 20 miles a day, in two- and three-mile routes that covered campus in all directions. Three cadets will also deliver the ball to the referees in Lane Stadium before the 3:30 p.m. homecoming game.
“We’re very happy that we’re still able to do it and keep the tradition,” said Jensen, who took on several legs a day throughout the week. “You don’t want to lose a tradition like this. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
The purpose of the Game-Ball Run ritual is to bring good luck to the Hokies for homecoming. But the run is also a unifier of sorts.
“It builds camaraderie between the Army, with the student population, and the football team,” Jensen said. “Normally, we wouldn’t interact with the football team or as many students on campus. It kind of ties everyone in.”
There is no requirement that all Ranger Company cadets must participate, but Jensen said finding runners isn’t a problem.
“Everybody wants to do it,” said Tim Waters, a Ranger Company cadet and a Virginia Tech junior, as he waited for the ball handoff at the route change spot near the Pylons earlier this week.
Reactions to touching the game ball varied. Some people actually smacked the ball out of Jensen’s hands. Some wanted to grab it.
Because the run was canceled last fall because of COVID-19, at least two generations of Hokies haven’t yet experienced this annual good luck rite.
Many asked why they should touch the ball when it went by them this week. Jensen offered a brief explainer while still running.
“It’s a game ball for Saturday, and it’s good luck if you touch it,” Jensen shouted.
Alyson Casey, a junior, was pleased to see the game-ball tradition back in action. She touched the ball when the runners passed her on Kent Street on Monday morning.
“I get excited for every game day,” she said. “This just adds to the excitement.”
Virginia Tech is celebrating traditions like this one and others this year as it commemorates the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding. Learn more about the Sesquicentennial celebration.
– Jenny Kincaid Boone