(Full Disclosure: The author of this article is a former features writer for the VCU Athletic department)
At the time of writing this piece, it’s 2 a.m. on April 6, the day that would have been the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship. Like so many other annual spring competitions, the NCAA’s crown jewel — March Madness — was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the world.
Not having multiple screens turned to different games, not worrying about how my 10 brackets are doing, not seeing cult heroes born during a national broadcast, it has made me nostalgic for a much simpler time — a time when I was back in college at Virginia Commonwealth University cheering on my classmates in the Stuart C. Siegel Center, better known as The Stu.
Many of our readers might not be familiar with my alma mater VCU or its men’s basketball team, which is understandable. For the uninitiated, VCU is a rapidly growing public research university located in Richmond, Va. and the school’s men’s basketball team made one of the most unlikely and famous March Madness runs back in 2011.
I had the privilege of occasionally covering the men’s basketball team as well as the rest of the university’s varsity sports during my time as a staff writer at the student paper, The Commonwealth Times. This not only solidified my fandom further, but it also provided the foundation for my career in sports media as I would later write features for the athletic department following my graduation.
However, the purpose of this piece isn’t to reanalyze the 2011 run, or re-litigate my feelings towards former Head Coach Shaka Smart who abandoned those who loved him to go to the University of Texas (I mean come on, Shaka...), or talk about my former beats and interviews, or even discuss the men’s basketball teams performances in the years since making the Final Four.
Instead, I’m more concerned with something more visceral — that feeling deep down that every sports fan knows.
For my money, attending a VCU basketball game, especially when I was a student in the early 2010s, was/is one of the most intense atmospheres you can experience. The rush of endorphins that hits your brain during a game is a feeling that you will chase for the rest of your life.
The Stu is a modest arena compared to many big-time college basketball stadia, seating under 8,000. But the arena’s ceiling feels more compact and the architecture creates a level of claustrophobia that adds to the excitement for fans and VCU players, as well as dread for opponents who feel as though everyone is on top of them as they are shell-shocked by the deafening roar of the crowd.
Adding to the indistinguishable buzz are the very distinguishable songs and chants coming from the student section, and, more specifically, from VCU’s pep band The Peppas. First you hear the tubas’ low grumbles, then you feel the arena shake as you see the entire student section jumping up and down in unison to the beat. You hear a simultaneous clap from thousands as the mass of students continue their ominous leaping up and down. Thud. Clap. Thud. Clap. Then the singing begins, “YOU DON’T WANNA GO TO WAR! WITH THE RAMS! DON’T START NO STUFF, WON’T BE NO STUFF!”
It’s infectious. It’s a rallying cry. It’s a warning. The VCU basketball players have their responsibilities on the court, and the fans have the same responsibility from the stands. Make the other team’s life a living hell. If the other team feels comfortable, feels like they can communicate their game plan, we’ve failed. And, well, like we keep telling y’all, you don’t wanna go to war with the Rams.
Thanks to a fervent fanbase in an enclosed space, every play made by a VCU player feels like the biggest play of all time, and the atmosphere builds and builds and builds until that crescendo, that moment when everyone inside that arena knows that the game is over — like when point guard Briante Weber threw down this dunk against Butler University in 2013.
That dunk, in particular, is a very special moment to me and to a lot of VCU fans. You see, VCU’s Final Four run ended against Butler as the Bulldogs earned a berth to the national championship in 2011. We waited almost two years for a chance at revenge, albeit in a regular season game of much lower stakes. Butler walked into the Stu ranked 20th in the country while VCU flirted with a national ranking for periods that season.
The fact that it was a regular season game didn’t change the mindset of the VCU players or fans. This was a victory we desperately wanted — needed — and Weber was the avatar for all of our pent up frustration that was bottled since 2011. In a flash, Weber picked the pocket of the Butler guard and launched his body into the air. It felt like Weber was floating in the air for an eternity before he slammed home a tomahawk dunk. As Weber’s right hand grabbed hold of the rim, the ball already through the net, an almost concussive burst of noise slammed your senses. All you were left to do was react; scream, hug your friends, hug fellow students you might not know.
VCU was well on its way to handing Butler an 84-52 whooping, but it was that signature dunk that provided the release and the realization that VCU was the better team on that day. It was those moments and the feelings associated with them that I missed most when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2014.
There have been three instances in my life that I’ve experienced love at first sight. Two of them are inextricably linked — my first VCU basketball game, and my first Manchester United match.
During that final year of college, two of my closest friends, Jalen and Sam, started to introduce me to club football. I played as a kid but never had the channels on television nor the external influence in my life to watch anything other than the World Cup. However, it didn’t take long to coerce me into skipping an afternoon class or two to watch the Champions League matches with the guys, and I received crash courses on Jalen’s favorite team Manchester United and Sam’s favorite team Barcelona.
With my graduation completed a few weeks later in May 2014, I leaned on Jalen and Sam to continue my club football education, and we decided to buy tickets to the International Champions Cup because United were playing at relatively-nearby FedEx Field outside of Washington D.C.
While we waited for the July kickoff for the ICC, we gathered at the bars in Richmond for the 2014 World Cup to cheer on the Yanks and enjoy our first World Cup at or above the legal drinking age. Exciting as it was heartbreaking as we helplessly watched the Stars and Stripes fall to Belgium in the Round of 16, enjoying the communal aspects of football at the local watering hole with your mates was filling the void that I was missing from The Stu.
Finally, July 29 rolled around, and we made our trek north up I-95 to see Manchester United take on Inter Milan. Retrospectively, it was an odd match to see, let alone be the first football match I ever saw live in person, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter. I did not have expectations that I’d see the greatest football match of all time on a humid night in Maryland, mere weeks after many players were in Brazil for the World Cup; I just wanted to hang out with my friends and see Jalen’s favorite team play.
Looking back on it, maybe my tempered expectations provided the perfect confluence of events. Instead of worrying about the ramifications that this preseason match would have as Louis Van Gaal started his tenure, I was able to keep my gaze fixated on Wayne Rooney in case he produced a moment of magic, while getting swept up in the surrounding atmosphere. No disrespect to the vocal Inter supporters at the match, but FedEx Field might as well have been Old Trafford that night. United fans dominated the stadium and the singing of “Glory Glory Man United” rang out from all across the red sections of the stands.
I was finally feeling that sensory overload again. Jalen had given me a couple songs to learn before we arrived at the match, and I joined him in singing, “United Road” as we stood amongst a swath of Reds. I felt like I was back at The Stu, except this time I was living and dying on every pass, dribble and shot made by a Manchester United player. The atmosphere had me hook, line, and sinker, and I chose to be a Manchester United supporter that night. I wasn’t concerned with United’s successes that I was vaguely aware of, instead, I was in love with the camaraderie and togetherness I instantly felt with my friends and thousands of total strangers.
All the no-context soccer pics have me feeling nostalgic.— Nathan Heintschel (@NathanIsRed) April 4, 2020
This is the day in 2014 I stopped liking soccer and fell in love with it and #mufc.
Since then, I’ve built my life around it and I’m forever grateful to @JalenN0Rose and @srfarhi for introducing me to my life’s passion. pic.twitter.com/5NOpPisjIL
Ever since that night, I have died more than lived on every single pass, dribble and shot made by a Manchester United player, but, nevertheless, I get to experience the same rush of a VCU game during every Manchester United match. Furthermore, my love and support for United coupled with my career aspirations have created new opportunities to feel an increased connection with the club through the likes of writing for The Busby Babe.
The joy of making new friends through shared experiences in the student section has evolved to making friends and connections through the likes of Twitter and SB Nation Soccer Slack channels. I hope to replicate these same experiences when I finally make my first trip to Manchester to see a match at Old Trafford. To feel the rush of a match day at The Theatre of Dreams is something I’ve slowly saved money for and anticipated for years now.
The anticipation only grows stronger as we are all stuck biding our time as this outbreak works itself out. However, I reckon the feeling will be that much sweeter when I can be around like-minded individuals at The Stu again as well as during my first match in Manchester. Until then, I can only assume that seeing a Bruno Fernandes assist or a Marcus Rashford goal will bring me the same visceral reaction as Weber’s dunk provided me.
But for now, we must continue to wait and practice our civic duty of social distancing and not accelerating the spread of this pandemic. That way college basketball teams can resume making the fatal error of going to war with the Rams and the Reds can continue marching on, on, on.
With the conclusion of probably my most personal piece of writing for this site, leave your own stories in the comments below. Think back to that first United match you ever witnessed, that lasting emotion that has stuck with you throughout your support and share it with us and your fellow fans. GGMU, friends.