Corey Moore deserved the game ball. Or Ike Charlton. Or Shyrone Stith.
They were the ringleaders of Virginia Tech's 1999 conquest of Clemson.
But on that Thursday night, amid a raucous locker room, the traditional memento went to a perilously sick woman hospitalized several miles away.
Anne and Billy Hite can laugh at the experience now, he botching the laundry and she wearing Depends. But Anne's sudden illness remains the prism through which they view the most memorable football season in Hokies' history.
"The toughest year I've had in coaching," said Billy, a Tech assistant since 1978.
The pressures and long hours that accompanied the Hokies' run to the national-championship game were taxing. The anxiety and sleep deprivation prompted by Anne's trauma were immeasurable.
"Not to be overly dramatic, but I was pretty sick," Anne said. "If I hadn't had surgery when I did, I probably wouldn't be here."
Anne began feeling poorly during the season opener against visiting James Madison, played on a temperate, late-summer afternoon. She went to a stadium first-aid station with a severe headache, and when it persisted, a friend drove her home.
A high fever started the next day, and that evening Billy took Anne to the Montgomery Regional Hospital emergency room. Doctors suspected a bladder infection, prescribed antibiotics and discharged her.
During the next two weeks, "I was pretty much incapacitated," Anne said. "I'm a pretty tough old bird, but literally I could not get out of bed. I lost 20 pounds. I wish I could lose 20 pounds now."
Meanwhile, Billy did his best Mr. Mom, tending to the couple's three school-aged children. The kids were scared and confused, their father exhausted and equally afraid.
Friends such as Ellen Burnop and Cynthia Sterrett were invaluable, transporting the children and preparing meals. Head coach Frank Beamer offered nothing but support — "that's why (no assistants) ever want to leave here," Billy said.
Still, from early morning meetings to after-midnight housework, Billy, the Hokies' running-backs coach, had little time to exhale.
"I didn't even know what (the kids) looked like when they went off to school in the mornings," said Anne, a residential real estate agent and former special-education teacher. "I'm assuming they had clothes on. …
"He gained an appreciation for what a mother does. But I gained an appreciation for football time and the hours spent."
Tests eventually revealed the cause of Anne's decline: two abdominal abscesses that required immediate surgery. Doctors operated Sept. 21, two days before the Clemson game, a nationally televised test that many considered a barometer of Tech's championship hopes.
With Stith rushing for a career-best 162 yards, and Moore and Charlton contributing defensive touchdowns, the Hokies won 31-11. The Hite children — Kirsten, Bryn and Griffin — accompanied their dad to the locker room, where Moore presented the game ball to the family for Anne.
The gesture left the Hites in tears.
"I didn't know much about (Anne's illness) at the beginning of the season," said Stith, a teacher at An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News. "But by the middle of the year it was more evident. He'd come into meetings and practices looking a little beat down and tired and he'd say things like, 'My wife's not doing too well.'
"We knew he was going home every night and taking care of his kids and his wife, and then coming in every day and working with us. It was just extra motivation for us to make practices and meetings fun and do everything we could to give him a break and make the football side as easy as possible."
Not until November was Anne strong enough to attend a game. She needed a second surgery — the first punctured her bladder — but with the Hokies undefeated, she wanted to join the party.
Anne ventured to Tech's final two home games, against Miami and Boston College. The latter victory completed the Hokies' 11-0 regular season and sent them to the national-championship game against Florida State in New Orleans.
Confined to Blacksburg throughout the season, Anne was eager to travel.
"I just packed a big ol' suitcase of Depends and headed to New Orleans," she said.
Anne and Billy met at the University of North Carolina, where she attended graduate school and he played football. They were married in 1977, when he was a Tar Heels assistant coach.
Raised as a sports fan in Memphis, Anne soon became a regular at Carolina games. She hasn't missed a Virginia Tech home game in 10 years.
"I had the (second) surgery after we got back from the Sugar Bowl," Anne said, "and everything's been fine since."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times