Virginia Tech shooting life-changing for Steelers' Worilds
Six years ago, Jason Worilds awakened shortly before daybreak to prepare for one of Virginia Tech's final spring practices. As the sun peeped over the mountains that hover above the Blacksburg campus, he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary as he strolled toward the training facility.
There were, however, sirens blasting in the distance. But most students went about their usual routine, considering it was a familiar occurrence on a campus with an enrollment of more than 30,000.
Ultimately, April 16, 2007, proved unlike any date in the nation's history. A deranged gunman killed 32 people — mostly Virginia Tech students — to paralyze a typically quiet college community nestled on a plateau between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains.
The horrific shooting left survivors with emotional and mental scars that have yet to completely heal. The survivors aren't only the wounded but those such as Worilds, who continues to cope with the lingering anxieties caused by a once-unimaginable act of gun violence.
Still, the Steelers' 25-year-old linebacker painfully recalls the shooting — albeit reluctantly. That day, he acknowledges, remains vividly etched in his mind. At times, he ponders why fate intervened to spare his life while he stood alone and vulnerable on a drill field flanked by the buildings in which Seung-Hui Cho went on a murderous rampage.
“I definitely think about it all the time,” Worilds said. “It's something you take with you no matter where you are.
“It's sad so many people lost their lives, but we are all strengthened when we see those who survived. It's another example of the Hokie pride, that we are determined to rebuild our lives.
“It doesn't matter where I go people ask me about the shooting. It's the first thing that pops into people's minds. We will never forget. For a lot of people who weren't there, it was a spectacle on television, but to the people there, it was different and it was painful.”
Worilds still feels the pain. Sometimes, he can't shake the thunderous echoes of sirens and the haunting silence of a classroom where he and classmates took cover from an unknown assailant who committed one of the country's deadliest acts of mass murder.
“We came out of our football meeting to go to the class, and it just happened that the class I was going to was a building away from where the shooting took place,” Worilds said. “The class got eerily silent, and the professor stopped speaking. All of a sudden, people were looking around. We started pulling up the news on our laptops. No one could believe it was happening.
“The campus police said there was a shooting on campus, but they hadn't said where,” he added. “The professor went to close the door, but the entire building had been locked down. We didn't have any cell phone service, so we really didn't know what was going on. I couldn't even call my mother to let her know I was safe.
“It was nerve-racking because we didn't know where the shooter was. As far as we knew, he could have been in any building. He could have been anywhere. It could have been anybody.
“I remember thinking, ‘What happens if he comes into this building?' We were sitting ducks.”
Instinctively, Worilds couldn't stay put. He wandered to the drill field not knowing which building — Norris Hall or West Ambler Johnson — the shooter had decided to enter. He couldn't hear the gunfire, but only the unsettling screams of students.
“Personally, I took my chances,” he recalled. “I ran down the middle of the campus to the drill field and back into the opening. I figured if I got back to my dorm room, I would be safe.”
Most of the shooting victims were in Norris Hall, which is only a football field away from Worilds' dorm.
“It was disturbing to know I was that close,” Worilds said. “He could have run into our building. We weren't sure if it was a random killing or if he was looking for someone. It was rough because the first shooting was actually in the dorm next to my dorm.”
As President Obama and lawmakers continue to negotiate possible gun control legislation — including background checks — in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Worilds said campus life hasn't changed much at Virginia Tech.
Yet, there is a new reality — that college campuses aren't immune to the gun violence that plagues the nation.
“I don't think there was much of a difference on campus, partly because guns were always prohibited on campus even though it's legal to carry a weapon in Virginia,” Worilds said. “It's not an environment for guns.
“The kids come to school to better themselves, so there's no reason to have a weapon. Aside from a few incidents, there hadn't been any threats on campus until the shooting.”
University administrators canceled the spring game almost immediately. But the 2007 season opener against East Carolina presented an opportunity to heal for traumatized students.
“Everybody looked at the football team to help bring back some sense of normalcy, and we had to take it in stride,” said Worilds, who helped lead Virginia Tech to an 11-3 record and an Orange Bowl appearance. “People will never forget what happened. It's a part of Blacksburg. It's a part of Virginia Tech.”
It, too, is a part of Jason Worilds.