Text by Jennifer Poff Cooper
Photos by Always and Forever Photography
“The first thing to know about a Virginia Tech football game,” says Floyd Merryman III, “is that it is an event, not just a game.”
Truly, it is a three-day event and not a small amount of work for the occupant of the largest skybox at Lane Stadium. Merryman attends every home game, and the process begins on Thursday when he commutes to his weekend home in Blacksburg from his base at Smith Mountain Lake.
Friday is spent stocking the skybox suite with beverages, which Merryman and friends haul up in the elevator themselves. During happy hour, they then watch the “walk through” or last practice before the game.
On game day, no matter the kickoff time, by 8 a.m. his 250-strong group of friends, dubbed the Hokie Tailgaters, begins tailgating in the grass across from the stadium in the first six parking spaces of the Cassell Coliseum lot. One member has a trailer with a full kitchen, so they feast on all manner of food throughout the season. Because they eat so much while tailgating, there isn’t a lot of food in the suite; what there is Merryman purchases from university catering.
The suite opens two hours before the game, but Merryman and company usually tailgate outside until about 30 minutes before kickoff, making sure they are in place to take advantage of the view of special events such as a flyover. No matter the weather, Merryman uses a remote control to open the windows of the skybox in order to get the “game day atmosphere.” The announcer is piped in over a public address system in the suite, but just like for folks in the stands, the crowd noise makes it hard to hear.
Stadium style seating, complete with cup holders, fills the part of the suite closest to the windows. Farther back is a seating area with leather chairs and sofas. The suite holds a maximum of 45: 29 ticket holders who share the cost of the suite with the Merrymans and 16 recipients of guest passes that the hosts share with customers and friends. Because his father, Floyd Withers “Sonny” Merryman, Jr., was a cadet, the family has kept his tradition of hosting two cadets in the suite every game. It is not uncommon for university President Timothy Sands or Athletic Director Whit Babcock to stop by during a game.
Luxuries abound inside the skybox. The suite is heated and cooled, obviously an advantage for a hot September game or a frigid November one. A private bathroom is also part of the package. In addition to the stocked refrigerator, there is a full bar. On game days, Merryman has a bartender / hostess to take care of guests’ every need. A television is tuned to the game for those, like Merryman’s significant other, Roya Gharavi, who enjoy relaxing in the comfortable seating area and socializing as much as watching the live game.
The décor was hand-picked by the Merrymans. There is a plaque from each bowl game the Hokies have played in, numerous autographed pictures, and a collection of helmets representing each Atlantic Coast Conference team. Merryman has mini-helmets for this year’s opponents already gathered on the coffee table. On game day, the helmet of that opponent is featured on the table.
The suite stays largely unoccupied throughout the rest of the year. Other occasions for which it is used are graduation and spring game. With special permission, it can be used at other limited times, such as when the Dave Matthews band gave a concert after the massacre of April 16, 2007.
At the inception of the suite concept in 2005, skyboxes were assigned on a priority basis according to support of Virginia Tech athletics. Merryman’s family was number one on the list, so it got first pick. It was important to them to be on the 50-yard line and have a large suite. It is one-third larger than others and right on the 50-yard line. Leases run for five years, and Merryman says he understands there is a long waiting list.
Folks hoping to lease the biggest and best suite at Lane Stadium will likely have to keep waiting, as the Merryman family does not sound like they will give up the food, fun and fellowship of their skybox anytime soon.
Jennifer Poff Cooper is a Christiansburg-based freelance writer and regular contributor to NRV Magazine.
Floyd Merryman, Sr., was a member of the class of 1924. Following in his footsteps was Floyd Withers “Sonny” Merryman, Jr., a student at Virginia Tech in the early 1940s, who became founder and head of one of Virginia’s largest transportation distributors, Sonny Merryman, Inc. Floyd Merryman III graduated in 1981, and he is currently president and CEO of the family company where he has worked for 34 years.
Merryman estimates that his family has donated $5 million to Virginia Tech with 60 percent going toward athletic pursuits and 40 percent to academic scholarships. “We do it as a family, with my mother, sister and son all involved,” he says. His dad, Sonny, passed away in 2013.
Notable among the athletic contributions is funding for the Merryman Athletic Facility, built in 1998, which has been a key component in recruiting some of the top athletes in the country.
Academically, the contributions focus on the College of Business and Corps of Cadets. The Merrymans also provide a pupil transportation scholarship for students who have some relation to the pupil transportation community, typically those with parents as bus drivers – probably of the buses that Sonny Merryman, Inc., produces. Sonny Merryman’s goal, according to Floyd, was to help those who might not otherwise be able to attend college. “If they qualify to be a Merryman scholar, they really need the help.”
Today, Floyd Merryman continues the tradition of serving the university. He is past president of the Hokie Club, on the Dean’s Cabinet for the Pamplin College of Business and was part of the search committee for new athletic director Whit Babcock.