Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Ground Zero

Welcome to the epicenter of the rivalry between Virginia Tech and Tennessee: State Street in Bristol.

BRISTOL, Va./Tenn.-- "Come with me," says the bartender, motioning you to follow him. "You really want to know what this town is like? Then I need to show you something."

John Estes escorts you onto an elevator and up to the loft of State Line Bar and Grill in downtown Bristol. He walks toward a side wall of the empty room -- the nighttime crowd won't arrive for several hours -- and grabs a long, rectangular object.

He snaps down two sets of table legs and sets up the contraption.

"You like it?" he says.

Oh, yes. You do. It's beautiful. One half is painted orange, the other maroon. In the center are dueling logos -- one for Virginia Tech, the other for the University of Tennessee.

As usual, the search for truth has ended at a beer-pong table.

Estes says that here in Bristol, people play on this table an average of four nights a week. You wouldn't dare catch a Hokie -- even a particularly thirsty one -- playing on the Tennessee end of the board, and vice versa.

And that's the great thing about this place: You have to pick a side. Particularly when the two biggest college teams in the area are about to face off in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.

"It's the game everybody here has wanted to see for years," says J.J.

Johnson, 55, a Tennessee fan hanging out at the bar.

State Street, upon which the State Line Bar and Grill stands, serves as the border between Tennessee and Virginia and the divider between the twin cities of Bristol, Va., and Bristol, Tenn. Standing here, you're 125 miles from Blacksburg and 114 miles from Knoxville.

In other words, you're at the epicenter of a rivalry that long has existed only in theoretical terms. The Hokies haven't faced the Volunteers since the 1994 Gator Bowl. It's hard to despise a team when you never play them.

Hard, but not impossible.

"We hate Tennessee," Tech fan Sevarin Edwards, 26, tells you at the Bristol Mall, which is on the Virginia side.

She's not too fond of first-year coach Lane Kiffin, either.

"Can't stand him," she says. "He's just so cocky and arrogant, and he can't back it up."

Her 17-year-old cousin, Zachary Keene, says he drives a UT fan to school everyday. The guy never stops crowing about Southeastern Conference superiority.

"Constantly," says Keene, a Bristol, Va., resident who adopted the Hokies because his mother and uncle attended Tech.

As you might expect, the mall services both fan bases. Christmas ornaments for sale at the kiosks are split between Hokies and Vols, with other team logos sprinkled in almost as an afterthought.

At Phyl's, a sprawling gift store owned by an ardent Tech fan, a menagerie of Hokies and Vols knickknacks -- salsa dishes, lunch boxes, shot glasses, lamps -- sit side-by-side, almost daring the consumer to pick a team.

"Some days you sell all VT, and some days you sell all UT," says Megan Street, a Tennessee fan minding the cash register at Phyl's on a recent afternoon. "You never know until you walk in the door."

Even the hot sauce store is conflicted. Steve Trimboli, who owns All Fired Up at the mall, offers bottles of Volunteers and Hokies sauces at $6.95 apiece.

"I sell the whizz out of both of 'em," he says, before unloading another shipment. "I'm not a huge sports fan, but if they're having a game, it's going to start a rivalry. I know that."

The rivalry has existed for years under the surface. In 2005, maverick racetrack owner Bruton Smith tried to arrange a game between the teams at Bristol Motor Speedway, but no deal was struck. This year, it took a strong finish by the Hokies and a rebound season from the Volunteers to set up the Chick-fil-A matchup.

For UT fans such as Johnson, this is overdue. He says he typically pulls for the Hokies because he's close with a lot of Tech fans, but now that they're playing each other, all charity is lost.

"I grew up on the Virginia side, but Virginia Tech wasn't what they are now," Johnson says. "Back then, they were like Emory & Henry or something."

Now the Hokies are a perennially ranked team riding the third-longest bowl streak in the country.

"You all can go back to about 1993," says a middle-aged man at the Bristol Mall, after you tell him who you are and whom you represent. "When you win 48 bowl games, come see me."

"Come on, sir," you say. "Tell me your name."

"Uh-uh," he says, shaking his head.

"What's the big deal?" you say. "It's only a newspaper article."

"Just call me a 'concerned Tennessee fan,' " he says.

Hmm, you think.

Wonder how good he is at beer pong?

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