Friday, September 03, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: 'The Sheet' more than just paper

BLACKSBURG -- It was good to see The Sheet again.

Man, you've got to love The Sheet -- mostly because it's so selective. That single piece of paper never shows up at spring games. It balks at summer workouts, fall practices and even major media functions such as the ACC Football Kickoff (that's a misnomer, by the way, given that it's held a month before the season opener; The Sheet will not be fooled.) No, The Sheet waits for prime time.

And on Thursday, The Sheet returned.

"I'm nervous about this game," Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer said, glancing down at The Sheet as he opened his first game-week press conference of 2010. "John Ballein, who sent out our travel squad, noted this morning that Boise State had 21 of 22 starters back. And we're traveling with 22 guys who have never played in a ballgame."

Another peek at The Sheet.

"So now I'm real nervous."

I have no idea what was actually written on The Sheet cradled in Beamer's jewel-bedecked hands. Was it the travel squad names? Was it literally a note from Ballein, the director of football operations who serves as the coach's right-hand man? Perhaps it was just a couple of cryptic numbers -- a "21" next to a "22" -- next to a scribbled reminder: "Real nervous."

Doesn't matter. Even if it was blank, The Sheet is the greatest prop ever carried to the set, the highlight of the weekly Beamer press conference, the signal that college football finally is back in Blacksburg.

And the best part? The Sheet is more versatile than Paul Hornung. You can tell a lot about the state of the program by the way The Sheet is used.

Sometimes The Sheet merely informs. Beamer will walk in, sit down, clear his throat, unfold The Sheet and start reading: "Before we begin, here are a few injury updates from trainer Mike Goforth. ..."

This, generally, means times are good but not great. The staff is all business, but not in a reactive, panicky sort of way. In these cases, The Sheet is there merely to move things along at the most efficient pace possible. Gotta go. Got games to win.

Other times, however, The Sheet is a shield. It's loaded with facts and figures that speak of the program's consistency and power -- think 10-win citations and "scoring offense" figures.

I hope for Tech's sake that we do not see this version of The Sheet this year. Because this means the Hokies will have just lost three in a row.

But the most common function of The Sheet is exactly what we saw Thursday: To provide a fact -- or collection of facts -- that makes the Hokies look like they don't have a chance in hell.

Maybe it has a few opponent height-weight specs on it: "I'm lookin' at these Akron defensive ends -- 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, WHOO!"

Maybe it has some obscure accolade a struggling opposing player has received: "That Southwestern Missouri State quarterback, now, I know people want to look at his numbers, his 47 interceptions and all that, and say he's not BCS-caliber, but that kid won two Indiana regional Punt Pass & Kick titles in his early teens, according to what I've got here. So that tells you a little about what we're up against. That guy can PLAY."

On Thursday, it was merely two facts. The "Boise State has 21 returning starters" note was news to no one who has even the slightest interest in this game; it's probably been the most oft-cited nugget all preseason.

That's why The Sheet burrowed for more and secured that note about Tech's 22 newbies, which was later augmented by Beamer's speculation that "some of them are going to be flying for the first time, probably."

Perfect. Because you know what usually happens when we see this version of The Sheet?

Yep. Somebody in Idaho might just be in trouble.

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