Decades of walking the steps
Jami Ryan has several pre-game rituals on a Hokie football game day.
The most important is warming up before the game. When he gets to Lane Stadium, he makes sure to stretch out well. He needs to be quick on his feet all night.
But Ryan isn’t on the field. He’s in the stands selling ice cold Cokes, which he’s been doing for the past 20 years — making his tenure one of the longest known among Lane Stadium drink vendors.
Michael Lang of Shawsville has also been selling sodas for 24 years.
“I started when I was 13 years old,” Lang said. “So yeah, I’ve known Jami for a long time.”
Lang said he has kept selling sodas at Hokie games primarily because he likes getting the extra pocket change.
“The money’s good here,” he said. “That’s what keeps everybody going here.”
Lang has always made friendly fun of Ryan for stretching before the games. “I walk far enough from my car each game, I’m loosened up when I get to the stadium,” he said.
Ryan says he doesn’t really know why he kept selling sodas in Lane — aside from loving it, of course. But why two decades?
“It just became one of those things,” he said. “It was a job I loved and it was the first job I had.”
And although now he could afford season tickets, he’d rather stay in the stadium, reminding people to “get your ice-cold Cola-Cola!”
Ryan first started selling sodas as a 15-year-old Christiansburg High School sophomore and football player. He was a Hokies fan, but couldn’t afford the tickets to the games.
“My Hokies football fandom really started in 1991 or 1992,” Ryan said. “I remember listening to Bill Roth on the radio, dying with every word he said.”
So Ryan, a devout Hokies fan, found a way to go to games while trying to save up for his first car. Ryan said he was able to buy his car after his first season of selling – for $301.
He said it was good enough to get him to and from the stadium.
These days, Ryan said, he makes between $60 and $70 per game. Sodas cost $3.50 each, and Ryan pays in a little more than $50 for each tray, so he profits off of each tray he sells.
Ryan attended Radford University after graduating from Christiansburg High School and later worked as a computer engineer at the Corporate Research Center before becoming the founder and CEO of the New River Valley event website NextThreeDays.com. Through all of that, the Christiansburg native said he has never missed a season (though he’s missed a few games here and there).
Selling sodas in Lane Stadium is a seemingly simple task: Soda hawkers pay in for their first tray of drinks. Each tray holds 20 drinks and weighs about 10 pounds when it’s full. Then they’re assigned to a section or sometimes a couple of sections. Their job is to walk through the stands and sell the sodas, which will make them more money than they paid. If they can get to 10, 15 or 20 trays sold in one night, they receive various bonuses. Ryan said in the past, it was easy to get to 10 trays sold, but now it’s more common to stop at about eight.
“The harder you work, the more money you make,” Ryan explained. But it helps if the team is working just as hard as the soda sellers.
“If the team doesn’t do well, the drinks don’t go well,” Ryan said.
Soda sellers work out of rooms tucked into the skeleton of Lane Stadium where volunteers constantly fill drink cups with soda. This season, Ryan works for a soda room in the south end zone, though he can sell sodas as far away from his room as the east stands. He said it’s easiest to sell the most in the west stands and south end zone, where alumni sit, but he enjoys being around students in the east stands, too.
“People sitting down can see you better, and in the student section nobody can see you but the people on the end. But that’s OK. I’d rather be with the passionate fans,” Ryan said.
Ryan is a little superstitious. Before heading to the game, he paints his goatee into a maroon old school VT style logo (with the T sitting inside the V); puts on his fake hair, which he said he started wearing 12 years ago after a friend bet him $10 to do it; and he said he eats a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice.
Ryan arrives at Lane Stadium about two hours before the start of a game. He waits for his section assignment, chats with other soda sellers and completes his pre-game rituals: stretching, calling his friends and reminding them that,
“It’s game day, it’s game day, it’s game day!”; calling his wife – “she’s the only one who picks up the phone anymore,” he said; organizing his pockets for cash people will hand him for soda in just the perfect way.
“When I was younger, I used to think I was like the 12th man,” Ryan joked. “Like I had to do these superstitious things or else we’d lose.”
While Ryan describes many of his rituals as superstitions, stretching is one of the more important ones. Walking the stairs of Lane Stadium for hours takes some warming up and some stamina.
“People would laugh at me while I’m stretching, but I was like, I don’t care. I know what will happen if I don’t stretch,” Ryan said. “I’ve always played football and sports, so I know it’s important to stretch.”
“It’s great exercise,” he said, to sell sodas in Lane. “Once, about 10 years ago, a friend asked me to wear a pedometer, just out of curiosity. One game turned out to be the equivalent of about 5 or 6 miles.”
And they aren’t flat miles. Ryan must be attentive to crowds, quick on his feet, and able to lift his tray up and over the handrails that break Lane’s stairs in half.
On hot days, Ryan says, he can weigh as much as 5 pounds lighter at the end of the game.
Ryan said he and his brother used to come to Lane during the summer before football season started to run the stairs to get in shape. Now, he just relies on pacing himself and stretching well before the game starts.
“You just pace out and keep going and keep going and don’t stop,” is his basic game plan, he said.
At the beginning of the game, Ryan stands out in front of the entrance gates and waits until after the craziness of “Enter Sandman” to head up into the stands.
At the Nov. 8 Florida State game, Ryan had already sold three trays of sodas between the entrance gates and the east stands by about five game-clock minutes into the first quarter. After “Enter Sandman” was over, he took a winding route down into section five, up into section 25, over to section 23, down to section three, over to section one, up to section 21 and back over and down to section five.
“You’ve just got to learn to keep your eyes open,” he said, to not run into other people moving around in the stadium.
“I just love Virginia Tech football,” he said. “You really are part of it, doing this. You’re part of what makes the game in Lane special. You get to talk to all the fans.”
When Ryan realized how close he was to reaching his 20-year anniversary, he said he knew he had to get there.
He said he’s not sure how long he’ll keep doing it, but he’s happy to have made it this far.
“I love it. It’s the funnest thing I ever did,” Ryan said. “If I could do this all the time, I would.”
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