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January 9, 2009

Dustin Pickle's dream of running out of the Lane Stadium tunnel and playing for the Hokies became a reality

By: Jimmy Robertson

No. 35, Dustin Pickle

Most home improvement shows these days deal with ways to spice up a bland living room or bedroom. They can focus on ways to spruce up worn decks or sidewalks, or even narrow things down to something as simple as jazzing up a dull wall.

Occasionally, some of these home improvement presentations concentrate on the ceiling – that normally white, wide expanse of plaster in each room resting unobtrusively over one’s head that is largely ignored. It can be enhanced with an array of hues and pastels, or decorated with flowery borders, or even adorned with hardwood molding and trim.

One Tech football player, though, took a rather innovative way of garnishing his ceiling as a kid growing up in a town near of Blacksburg.

He unpretentiously taped his dream on it.

Dustin Pickle doesn’t remember the exact age when the dream spawned in his mind. But at some point over the days, months and years of his formative years, he came to the realization that he wanted to run out of the tunnel at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium as a contributing football player for the Hokies.

So as a teenager, he secured a photo of the tunnel that leads into the stadium. He carefully taped it to the ceiling above his bed, right next to some photos of his favorite Tech players and some cutouts of articles following big Hokie victories.

That tunnel entrance was the last thing he saw before he fell asleep at night – and the first thing he gazed at when he woke up the following morning.

“I wanted it to be the first thing I’d see,” Pickle said. “Then I thought, ‘OK, what can I do today to make my chances better so that I can play for that team?’

“It was important. It was my dream.”

Call it a dream fulfilled for the 5-foot-10, 185-pound running back whose Orange Bowl appearance marked the conclusion of that dream. Pickle doesn’t leave Virginia Tech as the leading rusher (he rushed for all of 61 yards in his career) or leading receiver (he caught just four passes in his career) or the leading tackler (he finished with 21 total, all of those on special teams) in school history.

But he may leave as the most grateful to get the opportunity to play at Tech. And he may have put more into getting to this point than anyone else.

Pickle has been playing football all of his life and desperately wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of his idols, Brandon Semones, who piled up the gridiron accomplishments at Glenvar High before doing the same at Tech back in the mid-1990s. Pickle starred at Glenvar, too, but made the arduous decision to leave Glenvar following his junior season and transfer to Salem High, with the thought of playing against better competition and elevating his chances in his pursuit of playing at Tech.

Religious to the core and loyal to a fault, Pickle prayed constantly about his decision before making it. Stay loyal to his teammates – and more importantly, his friends – or take a step to better pursue his dream? His friends’ support eased his mind and he bolted for one of the best football programs, year in and year out, in the Commonwealth headed by coach Stephen Magenbauer, who, coincidentally, was the head coach at Glenvar during Pickle’s freshman year and knew him well.

“I remember walking into that weight room [at Salem] one day [that summer] and it was all business,” Pickle said of his newfound Salem teammates. “It was like, ‘We’re glad to have you here, but if you’re not here to win, then get out.’

“I told Coach Magenbauer that I was coming to play for him, but that I didn’t want any favoritism. You know you’re going to get that from some of the players who might say, ‘Well this isn’t fair. He’s coached him before. He likes this kid. He’s going to give him a starting position.’

“But I let everyone know up front that I was there to win football games and to do what I could for the team. If I got a starting position, great, but if I didn’t, I’d stand on the sideline and cheer us to victory every game. I made sure everyone knew that.”

The move worked out splendidly for Pickle. He won a starting job in the defensive backfield for the Spartans and finished with 145 tackles and seven interceptions, and he also got some time in the offensive backfield, rushing for around 350 yards. Salem cruised to a sporty 13-1 record and won the Group AA championship that season.

“He came here and was mature enough to fit into the situation,” Magenbauer said. “He knew he wasn’t going to get preferential treatment, but he wouldn’t have wanted it. We knew what type of kid he was. In his mind, he felt he would disrespect the game and Salem if he were to get preferential treatment. That’s just how he is.”

After that season, few recruiters showed an interest in Pickle, which puzzled Magenbauer – “I’m shocked that they’ll [recruiters] choose certain kids and not others. It’s such a crapshoot,” he said. But Pickle was really only interested in one school. He was just waiting for the offer from Tech.

The offer to come as a walk-on, that is.

“I’m from Salem. It’s 20 miles [from Blacksburg],” Pickle said. “I mean, you could ride your bike here if you really wanted to.
“It was always Virginia Tech for me. I went to Glenvar and Brandon Semones played here. That was cool. He went to Glenvar and then went to Tech, and I thought, ‘If he could do it, then I could do it.’

“I remember seeing his picture in the paper and then reading stories about what walk-ons had done there. I thought, ‘This would be cool.’ I was 5-nothing, 100-nothing, but I liked to play the game. I wanted to try it. God blessed me with the chance.”

Bryan Stinespring, Tech’s offensive coordinator, finally told him that he would reserve a spot in Cochrane Hall for him, a place where a lot of athletes board, and Pickle jumped at the chance. Then he set about doing whatever it took to run through that tunnel.

He would have painted the lines on the field, or even washed the team’s laundry. Yet his versatility, his willingness to do whatever the coaching staff wanted, even if it meant getting his brains beat in routinely during practices, and his love of the game – and the university – was enough.

All of that ultimately got him on the field. After a year spent on the scout team and playing in a couple of junior varsity games his freshman year, Pickle ran out of the tunnel on Sept. 2, 2006, when the Hokies took to the field in the season opener against Northeastern his sophomore season.

“My first goal was to get on the practice team and wear a helmet,” he said. “Be a tackling dummy. Just get out here somehow. The second step was to get a chance to dress and run out of that tunnel. That was the ultimate goal at first because that means you’re on the team and have a chance to get in the game. You’ve got a number with a name on it, and it’s yours. No one else has it.

Touching the Hokie stone and running out of the Lane Stadium tunnel never got old for Tech's Dustin Pickle.

Once I was able to accomplish that, I wasn’t satisfied. But it was the best moment. I remember running out there for the first time like it was yesterday.”

He ran out there for every game thereafter, eventually working his way into a number of support roles and gradually earning a scholarship in August of 2007. When he walked out of Frank Beamer’s office that day, he was nearly speechless.

“I was certainly proud of Dustin [for earning the scholarship], but I was probably more proud of Virginia Tech,” Magenbauer said. “It’s not like they [the coaches] had to do it. Dustin wasn’t going to quit if they didn’t offer him a scholarship. He would have poured his heart and soul into that program even if he hadn’t gotten one. I really felt good about that program because they could have kept him for free – and he would have been just as happy.”

Of course, don’t be led astray about Pickle’s athletic abilities. He wasn’t exactly some modern-day Rudy without a speck of athleticism during his Tech career. He ran well, he caught the ball well and he wasn’t afraid to lower his shoulder into some unsuspecting defender’s trunk.

He served as the third-team tailback, but saw extensive action in the Hokies’ two-minute offense this past season. He also volunteered for all the special teams and wound up on most of them, becoming one of Beamer’s favorites.

“He’s dependable,” Beamer said. “I think anybody that would say something negative about Dustin Pickle doesn’t know that kid very well. One of the hardest-working, greatest-effort, most-dependable, you’d-like-to-have-a-son-just-like-him type of guy.”

“If you asked me in high school to write my dream down, I couldn’t have written it any better than the way it’s panned out,” Pickle said. “It all goes back to being raised in a Christian home. My mom and dad instilled the Christian walk in me and I’ve tried to combine that with FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] and the things I’ve learned, and how you can use athletics and Christianity to do great things. I can’t thank God enough for the things he’s given me.”

Pickle’s impact off the field will be missed just as much as what he contributed on it. His upbeat nature kept things light, and his infectious attitude for FCA – and for the Lord, in general – rubbed off on his teammates. He took that to the community as well, often traveling with a few other players to Roanoke and other locations in the New River Valley to speak at FCA functions.

“I remember when I was in the sixth grade and Nick Sorensen and Dave Meyer came to speak to us,” Pickle said. “I don’t remember what they said, but I knew they were there, they spoke to us and they were Christians. I remember telling myself that if I ever get a chance to do that, that’s what I’m going to do.

When you speak to people, you think maybe they get something from it, but it’s more rewarding for you than it is for them. You realize that if you give God the opportunity, He’s going to bless you as much as He is the people who are listening to your words.”

Dustin Pickle is the first to admit he’s been blessed. He enjoyed some gridiron success, earning a scholarship in the process. He is slated to graduate in May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and minors in both construction and real estate. He plans on moving out to the West Coast following graduation and maybe trying to latch on to an Arena League team. If not, he’ll get a job and be closer to his longtime girlfriend, Lauren Barnette, who was the 2007 Miss Virginia and currently is pursuing a career in acting and modeling out in Los Angeles.

Yes, in several months, he’ll be off to pursue another dream, his next one.
It’s a task in which he’s an expert.

“You’ve got to want it more than anything else you could possibly want,” he said. “That may sound easy. But you’ve got to want it more.

“Set your goals low and then dream big. You get one goal and then stair-step up to the dream. If you try to get the dream first, you’re going to stumble. There are steps you have to take. You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to prepare yourself. You can’t expect anything but a chance. And when you get a chance, take advantage of it.”

He came up with the original concept to tape his dream to his ceiling, a wrinkle not even those popular home improvement shows have thought of.

Back then, that concept was a reminder that there was work to be done.

Now, it’s simply a reminder of what he earned.