by JESSE TUEL
On Nov. 26, 1999, Fontana was bounding across Lane Stadium's Worsham Field, a grandchild perched on his shoulders, celebrating Virginia Tech's win over Boston College. Michael Vick and the Hokies, undefeated at 11-0, had just cemented their shot at the national championship, and a cameraman asked Fontana what it felt like.
"I don't know," Fontana said. "It must be football heaven."
To the Hokie Nation, Fontana's sentiment is hardly hyperbole. But in the late 1990s, Lane Stadium was ready for a facelift. When Director of Athletics Jim Weaver arrived in the fall of 1997, he recognized that the environment fostered by Head Coach Frank Beamerone of continuity and stabilitymeant the program was poised for long-term success. Years later, it's apparent that a trek to a title game and 18 consecutive bowl games have a way of raising the stature of a football program.
After the 1999-2000 season, seats and a much-needed visitors' locker room for football and other sports were added behind the south end zone. Later, the westside expansion, rising six stories in time for the 2006 home opener, became one of the most visible structures on campus. The expansion houses a press box, a president's box, luxury suites, indoor and outdoor club seating, a memorabilia area, a ticket office, and athletic fundraising offices. The entire third floor, meanwhile, accommodates Student Athlete Academic Support Services, which assists students on all athletics teams.
When Fontana took one of his grandsons on a tour of the newly opened expansion, he proudly pointed out the wall of All-Americansthe Academic All-Americans. "That's what you have to aim for right there," Fontana told the boy.
In the mid-1980s, after 23 years with the U.S. Air Force, Fontana retired as a colonel and landed a job with Lockheed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Back then, he'd scour the sports section's fine print to find Hokie football scores, and University of Miami and Florida State University fans would ask him who the Hokies were. "Now they know," said Fontana, who retired in 2006 as logistics program manager for the United Space Alliance shuttle operations. Although he and his wife, Betty, maintain a home in Florida, they live in the New River Valley during football season.
Watching as the football program and the university gained prominence side by side, Fontana was energized by the westside expansion; he said the decision to make his first major gift to the university was a "no-brainer." "If you have pride in the school, you try to enhance that the best you can," Fontana said. "This is one of the places I built my foundation. You have to take care of it for those that follow."
A similar attitude is reflected across the Hokie Nation: In the eight-year Campaign for Virginia Tech, athletics donations accounted for $226.89 million. The westside expansion itself received $13.11 million in commitments.
Donors like Fontana see their philanthropy as an investment inand appreciation ofthe family feeling of football and the continuity of athletic programs in general.
"Togetherness" is the term Beamer uses. "From our alumni and the people who support us to the students, when we all get in that stadium, everybody has the same goal," said Beamer, who just finished his 25th season at Tech. "We are extremely fortunate to have tremendous support. By some generous donations, we've built what I think is one of the great stadiums in the countryone of the loudest, most exciting stadiums there is. You put fans in there, and they really help us win."
Those partial to Hokie sports know there's no finer sight than a sold-out, rockin' Lane Stadium on game day. In the westside expansion's press box, members of the media are reminded before kickoff that cheering for either team is prohibited, a rule which is especially hard to follow when the thunderous jumping that accompanies "Enter Sandman" sends tremors through the stadium.
For his part, Fontana confesses that he doesn't have a lucky jersey or any other pre-game ritual. "No matter what I do, it doesn't make a difference," he said. "It's between the ears of the players."
On the contrary: Consider what he and countless other fans have helped to build. Hokie confidence has a way of spilling off the field and into other university initiatives, and it's not a stretch to believe that athletics unites the university, the communities of the region, and the entire Hokie Nation.