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Ballard remembers Va. Tech tragedy

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. On that day, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior English major, shot and killed 32 people and injured many others before taking his own life.

I was in the Tri-City Herald building when the reports started to come on. I sat horrified as I watched the screen, trying to cope with the reality of what had happened.

Rhett Ballard doesn't have to imagine what it was like. He was on campus when it occurred.

The 6-foot-5 pitcher was a redshirt sophomore in 2007 and would be the Hokies' top reliever that year. But none of that mattered to him that morning as he walked past the dorms where the first two victims were killed.

"I walked past and there were about 30 or 40 cop cars," said Ballard, who didn't realize at the time that was only the beginning. Two hours later, he was midway through his first class, but his friend kept hearing sirens across campus.

"When class was over people were telling us to stay in the buildings," he said.

Once students were allowed to leave the classroom, Ballard said he and some friends went to an off-campus McDonalds, and watched television reports from there.

"We listened as they kept estimating the number of deaths. The number kept climbing," he said. "It was terrible. Everybody on campus was devastated."

The incident sparked an international controversy over existing U.S. gun laws, but it also created a vast network of support and sympathy that Ballard will remember forever. A month later, the New York Yankees donated $1 million dollars to the Virginia Tech Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and made a pledge to visit the campus the following year for a fund-raising exhibition game at English Field.

On March 18, 2008, the Yankees lived up to that promise. In a game Alex Rodriguez called "the most important of my Yankees career", the boys from New York shelled the Hokies 11-0. But, in the process, the Bronx Bombers won some new fans with their generosity.

"It was unbelievable getting to meet all the players," said Ballard, who even got to pitch to a few of them, although he doesn't remember exactly who. "I was the closer, and they had taken all the starters out by then."

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