It's a perfectly crisp Monday morning at Mr. Jefferson's University. Not quite cold but the early fall air packs enough of a chill that a sweater is a necessity for the first time in months, and hot coffee makes for a perfect early morning walk along the silently serene Lawn.
It's there, steps from the Rotunda, that I meet a man named Michael Bunting. He's a fourth-year at the University from a small town in Northern Virginia called Aldie, double majoring in Computer Engineering and Computer Science. He's the president of both a campus ministry organization called Cru and of the Engineering Student Council. Over the past 60 hours (at time of publish), most of the college football world has gotten to know him by the name "Sad Virginia Fan." But over the course of our interview, conducted over the greatest breakfast sandwiches this side of the Blue Ridge, I find that the meme he's known for isn't necessarily representative of who he is. He's just a loyal fan who was caught in a moment of visceral reaction.
For a refresher, he's the fan seated in the front row of Section 105 who was captured by ABC cameras slumped over the ledge after Notre Dame's game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds to go.
On our way to Bodo's, I ask Bunting, who wanted to talk to STL before any other news outlet, how long he's been a Virginia fan. I almost stop in my tracks when he tells me he comes from a Virginia Tech family. He switched loyalties his first day on Grounds (Aug. 28, 2012, he points out) and started going to football games immediately - starting with two wins over Richmond and Penn State in Mike London's third year as Virginia head coach.
A somewhat abridged version of our interview is below. Questions and answers have been edited for grammar and style.
Streaking The Lawn: Fortunes in football have kind of gone in a different direction than some other ones around here have gone. Have you been to most of the football games over your four years now?
Mike Bunting: Probably not every single one, but a large majority. I've even been to a few away games, like my first year I went to the away Duke game and sat in the Duke section and wore an orange shirt.
STL: Did you rush the field after Louisville and Miami last year?
MB: I did. I also made it on the Jumbotron for the Miami game. I was the runner-up, if you will, for the iPad dance contest so that was my first debut onto the big screen.
STL: Have you met Goose Guy or any of these other viral stars of UVa sports?
MB: I've only known of Goose Guy from the ESPN clip. Funny story is that he was, I believe, an electrical engineer fourth-year at the time. Which is funny, because I'm in basically the same department and also a fourth-year. So it's like there's a common thread between us. But I haven't actually met any of them in person.
STL: What were your thoughts going into the season?
MB: I believe in our program with Mike London. He actually spoke at one of our Cru gatherings when I was a first-year. He spoke on the power of believing in a team and faith in a cause, and so that's when I knew he had the emotional drive, he had the character development to instill within his team. So whether or not at the end of the day we end up producing results and a winning season, for me it's not as important because I know how good of a coach he is as a person. Yes, if we end up having a 1-11 season and that's all we do, even though it's my fourth year, I know that would be fine with me because I'm going to go to every single game and cheer my heart out. At the same time, I still believe that we can go to a bowl.
STL: On to the subject of the game itself. UVa's just scored to take the lead over the No. 9 team in the country. What are you seeing and hearing around you?
MB: Not gonna lie, I'm not a huge waterworks guy. There's few times in a man's life where it's appropriate to cry, but this was one of them. I never shed a tear, but my eyes did get watery - that's a distinction that needs to be made. But that's basically my reaction, yelling at the top of my lungs, hands straight up, high-fiving, Good Old Song at the top of my lungs.
STL: What was in the air on that Notre Dame play where it was fourth-and-short, and Virginia was one play away from the win?
MB: There's sound equipment and chairs in front of us, we're not supposed to rush the field, but they're clearing the path below where we're standing because they're anticipating students jumping over the ledge. All these thoughts were going through our heads. I actually have a broken foot,** so I had to figure out how I was going to jump onto the field. I broke my foot the day before classes started playing basketball. I have to be in my boot for another three weeks or so, but I was "architect-ing" jumping onto the field with this broken foot.
** - Ed. Note: Yes, Mike was actually ready to jump a good seven feet onto the field on one good foot, planning on landing on the one that wasn't broken.
STL: Describe how you saw the winning catch.
MB: He was running to my left and the hill was on my right. When that drive was occurring, I started having this "Oh my God, we're going to win, they're going to have this valiant effort to come back and it's going to be in vain." It's like in those movies when everyone is celebrating but one person realizes that something bad could happen so you focus on that person. My friend since first-year Dagoberto, who was standing to my left, has his hands matter-of-factly on the ledge and we picked up how Notre Dame was making an epic push, and the "Who wants to win it more?" question was coming up in my mind.
When the catch is made, I realized that that is literally the last play they had. I went back to YouTube later to see how many seconds had transpired between when the catch was made and when they showed me, and I believe I was hanging on the edge the entire time [between the catch and when] they were showing me on TV.
That was a momentary thing. One of the things I wanted to make sure I highlighted in this interview is that the meme that's been generated isn't necessarily true. Sad Virginia Fan is a bit of a misnomer because not only am I a normally happy guy in general, but I'm not disheartened about our football team in that way. I didn't choose the meme life; the meme life chose me. If people want to call me Sad Virginia Fan then so be it.
STL: Who was the girl who patted you on the back?
MB: Her name is Maggie, she's a fourth-year and also part of Cru. Probably the entire time I remember being slouched over she was patting me on the back. That the camera caught me right before she started patting me on the back is great.
STL: How long did it take your phone to start blowing up and people recognizing you as this guy?
MB: I had just got my haircut on Friday, uncharacteristically short. Because I have interviews coming up, I cut it sort of short. So everyone who saw the back of my head didn't recognize me. The only person that recognized me was my mother. Her and my dad were watching the game at home and she ended up talking to me later and was like "I'd recognize the back of that head anywhere."
Lately I've been busy preparing for the world beyond Scott Stadium so I haven't been following it closely, but I saw things start to blow up on social media about 10 minutes after that. When I got back to my house, people from across the street rushed over and were like "Mike, Mike, you're on the Internet and you might be famous."
STL: Do you know that you're the subject of a parody Twitter account?
MB: Oh yeah, somebody did show me that. I think it's hilarious. The Simba one is my favorite.
Get up! Wake up! pic.twitter.com/CiHx4wvZDf— Sad Virginia Fan (@SadVirginiaFan) September 13, 2015
STL: Are people around Grounds recognizing you at all?
MB: I have not been yet identified by a single person.
STL: Are you thinking about a win over Tech this point?
MB: It has to be because that's the last game. I think we'll be 5-6 going into it like we were last year but everything will be in the right place this time. Because Virginia Tech doesn't have the luck of the Irish.
STL: What do you want people to know about Mike Bunting beyond the picture?
MB: My hopes are still high. That was a momentary, in-the-place feeling. It's been used to say "This is UVa football in one single picture." I don't want people to think that about me. People can relate to the visceral reaction but I think if you ask around, more people would maybe tell you that they're hopeful. For me, every single game I will go and cheer as if we are the winning team every single time.