Even late in the morning Saturday, the William & Mary campus was soft and timid, as though still cowering from the previous day’s violently unexpected thunderstorm.
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Mom, dad and three children stood on the Crim Dell bridge, which sported a bright white bedsheet sign that advertised not the football game against Weber State, but the cautionary fact that only seven days of class remain.
A short distance away, a holiday-special Farmer’s Market drew huge crowds on Duke of Gloucester Street, most of whom were more worried about finding just the right wreath than whether quarterback R.J. Archer would be able to find the right receiver.
Bicycle racks outside dorms were full, but the riders were few and far between.
The tailgating contingent outside Zable Stadium ate and drank with subdued good cheer, as though unsure about the challenge the visiting football team from Weber State would offer the Tribe in their first NCAA playoff appearance in five years.
Whatever fears they held were justified in the first quarter. The Wildcats clearly had the better of it, and only two missed field goals and a dropped pass by a wide-open receiver kept the game scoreless.
Then W&M’s defense gained some comfort and began to assert itself. Linebacker Jake Trantin intercepted a pass and ran 60 yards for a touchdown. Shortly thereafter, cornerback B.W. Webb intercepted a Weber State pass and raced 58 yards to another touchdown.
It was 17-0 at the half, and the fifth-ranked Tribe wasn’t about to let go of the lead. Indeed, two more interceptions, a fumble recovery, and tenacious running by sophomore Jonathan Grimes added up to a 38-0 blistering of the nation’s 15th-ranked team.
At the end of a week in which the Tribe’s Colonial Athletic Association brothers Northeastern slammed the door on football after 74 seasons, 6,497 giddy fans watched W&M turn the page to the next chapter of its storybook season.
Among those who concern themselves with such mundane matters, there were fears that the Tribe and Wildcats would be able to stage their game on a tiny desert island with plenty of sand for everyone.
Those were nullified when, early in the first quarter, a parade of green-and-gold clad fans continued to parade down the track and into their seats behind Jimmye Laycock’s bench. Fashionably late, you might say.
It was the culmination of a week-long tide of support and appreciation that players and coaches alike appreciate.
It began on Selection Sunday. After a gut-wrenching loss at Richmond the previous day, Laycock wasn’t sure what to expect when the team gathered to watch the selection show. Maybe the fans would be too dispirited to come by.
Instead, the place rocked with enthusiasm.
“When I saw the outpouring of support” Laycock said, “the people that were there on Sunday, the crowd, the excitement, I told myself, ‘Wow, this is pretty neat. We’re in the playoffs.’ ”
For the players, it was the continuation of a process that has seen consistent support for their efforts.
“We’re lucky to have great support from the community and the alumni,” linebacker Wes Steinman said. “At games this season, it’s been so loud you can’t hear yourself think. I talked to a lot of people after the bids came out and as soon as they heard that we had a game, they made plans to come back early. That’s really nice.”
People say this began in 2004, with the locally famous Friday night national semifinal contest with James Madison University. Lights were trucked into Zable Stadium for the first time. ESPN sent a fleet of trucks into town. Bonfires burned, statues were “decorated,” students chattered away about it, and a frenzied sellout crowd witnessed an electric, albeit disheartening 48-34, loss.
The game and the excitement it engendered cleared the way for permanent lights at Zable. Some say it set the stage for the Laycock Center, the recruiting jewel that figures to serve W&M well for years to come.
How far following Tribe football has come lives in one indisputable fact: W&M opened the 2004 playoff season at home against Hampton University. It was Thanksgiving weekend. Students were gone, but HU fans were about 30 minutes from the Colonial Capital. The game drew about 5,500.
There were no such easy options available to Weber State fans. Getting from Ogden, Utah, to Williamsburg on Thanksgiving weekend probably isn’t a lot more convenient now than when John Henry Weber founded the school in 1793.
To their credit, maybe 200 made the trip. That left it up to W&M fans to provide energy and atmosphere.
The College helped by opening the dorms a day early for students wishing to attend. “Tribal Fever,” a student spirit organization, flooded Facebook members with e-mails advising them of the number of tickets still available and encouraging them to turn out.
Justin Petrie, a junior from Lynchburg, came back, and stood patiently at a table at the southeast corner of the stadium while senior Kira Allmann carefully dabbed two gold and two green bars of face paint on his cheeks.
“As far as this campus is concerned, I think football is growing,” Petrie said. “The freshmen are far more involved than before. It's growing."
Allmann and her Q-Tips and paint tubes were on hand and busy despite the fact that on Nov. 22 she was named a Rhodes Scholar, just the sixth student in W&M history to achieve that distinction.
“To me, football is just such a great social activity,” she said. “It brings a lot of people together, it’s a great way to meet up with friends, and I think it’s a great unifying force on campus. It’s only gotten better in my years here.”
What’s the best part of it all? There could be a long way to go, and a lot more paint to be dabbed, before her senior season is over.