Thirty-year vacation produces myriad memories

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During a media session prior to the February 2009 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed at me and said, "You owe me for getting you a week's vacation in Tampa."

Tomlin was right. Sort of.

His compelling story and intensely local ties — he graduated from Denbigh High School and the College of William and Mary — were the sole reason I was in Florida wearing shorts in the dead of winter.

But truth be told, I've been on vacation since starting at the Daily Press 30 years ago Wednesday.

What other gig affords a front-row seat to Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and administrators, not to mention 10 junkets to New Orleans — oh, that alligator cheesecake at Jacques-Imo's — on expense account?

What other "job" introduces you to the youth-league volunteers, high school coaches, weekend warriors and fervent fans who are the cornerstones of all we embrace about sports?

In short, what other profession encourages perpetual childhood?

So with the hope of entertaining, enlightening or surprising you, here are 30 moments/observations that highlight the good fortune and sheer fun of the last 30 years.

Oh, but before I start. Thank you.

Thank you to co-workers, colleagues, family and friends who offer support and guidance. Thank you to all who share their stories and insights, hopes and fears. And thank you to readers who are too kind in their praise and too gentle in their critiques.

•Thirty years ago, neither of the state's major college football programs had won a bowl. Ever. Since Virginia Tech has won 10, Virginia seven.

In 1990, the Cavaliers rose to No. 1 in both major polls. Nine seasons later, the Hokies played in the national championship game.

George Welsh. Frank Beamer. Enough said.

•Poverty, trouble and anger marked much of Allen Iverson's youth. But in November 1996, at age 21, Iverson found himself in the place of his dreams: sharing a basketball court with Michael Jordan.

It was Iverson's second professional game, and his Philadelphia 76ers had no chance against Jordan's Chicago Bulls, who on this night raised their fourth championship banner. But to see the unbridled joy in Iverson's face as he competed against Jordan, and even dared trash-talk him, was a refreshing change.

•Spring and summer basketball can be a mirage, but during Boo Williams' annual tournament in 2005, I saw a can't-miss kid. He was 6-foot-9, a brilliant, long-range shooter and a graceful athlete.

This kid could be better than Kevin Garnett, I thought. After texting several friends to race to Phoebus High School, I checked the roster for the young man's name.

Kevin Durant.

•Virginia Tech's first football game after Sept. 11, 2001, was at Rutgers, not far from where the World Trade Center towers fell. Hokies associate athletic director John Ballein knew just the person to carry the Stars and Stripes onto the field.

Linebacker Brian Welch's father was killed in a 1984 terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy annex in Lebanon. Brian was a toddler then, but on this Saturday afternoon he was a proud American leading his team into the stadium.

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