Bill Ellis is a husband and a dad who grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. He and his family now live in a small town outside the city.

Two years ago a new phrase jumped into the timeline of a guy I’d been following for a few months. I had no idea what a “Hokie” was, but on Saturdays the word was taking up quite a bit of real estate, and so I developed a passing interest in the fortunes of the Virginia Tech football team. Months passed; other topics prevailed, and then it was football season again. So when I emailed other IRL participants, I said things like, “Here are some ideas!” and “We can do whatever!”

But to Bill Ellis I said, “I want to go to a football game.”

“I’ll buy my own ticket,” I said, “and I don’t have to sit with you, but this is something I want to see.”

But to Bill Ellis I said, “I want to go to a football game.”

You might imagine that I love college football, but you would be wrong. I had exactly the interest in this VTU team that I have in my own alma mater and those of my children. I also hate cold weather, so it wasn’t the football; it was something else and I wanted to find out what it was, even if it meant getting up in the dark and driving four hours to do it.


The beginning of the drive was total darkness. Fat snowflakes hit my windshield and melted immediately and by the time light was hitting it too, I was in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And here’s the thing about the next hour of my life—I will never be able to do it justice. There were trees bedecked in every color of fall, valleys with homes where I imagined moving in, and mountains that made you think there are some things in this life that you can depend on. I took pictures and they only depressed me, like photocopies of ancient holy texts.

I’m 30 minutes late to the Kroger parking lot where we agreed to meet. Bill emailed the previous week to offer me one of his tickets (no charge) and a ride to the game so I wouldn’t have to pay for parking. We’ve exchanged cell phone numbers, and when I see the size of the grocery store lot, I’m grateful for the text that says, “Ford Escape. Back row.” I see him from two rows over, leaning against his car, looking at his phone.


Up to this point, I’ve met with three women. And while I know the risks of meeting strange men from the Internet, I also know at the core of my being, that the men in this project are truly good guys. I’m way more worried about their families who must be asking in the nicest possible way, “Who is this rando woman and are you out of your freaking mind?”


I wave and pull the trusty Pontiac vibe into the spot next to him, jump out and give him a hug, handing over the two bottles that every IRL participant receives— Boulevard Beer and Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue sauce. He stashes them in the back, I grab my stack of warm clothing items, and we’re on our way, the conversation mostly consisting of logistics, friends I’ll be meeting, and plans for dinner with his wife Angie and children Clare and William. It’s marginally uncomfortable, as you would imagine it might be. That’s kind of the theme of this project though, so I plow through and God bless him, so does Bill.

The drive is short and we pass lots with parking prices of $25, so I’m doubly grateful for the ride. (We also pass front yards with parking prices, which strikes me as a helluva way to lie on the couch and own a Saturday.) Bill threads the car through the tailgaters in the stadium parking lot and finds space 168. People edge out of the way of a moving car, but it scares the bejeezus out of me till he says that if a) the team was playing well and b) the weather was good, we would barely be able to get to the spot because of the crowds.

We chat in the car for a while and he tells me I’ll meet John, an old college friend whom he sees just once a year. I bundle up and Bill raises the hatchback and grabs a bottle of bourbon and I think, “Sweet JESUS I have good taste. These IRL peeps are four for four whiskey drinkers.” He puts ice cubes into the go cups and laughs when I grab the Ziploc bag to make sure it is sealed tightly, “That’s a Mom move for sure.” I think of the five people who call me that and wince with missing them.

Sweet JESUS I have good taste. These IRL peeps are four for four whiskey drinkers.

Bill introduces me to John who has driven in from Charlottesville with his children. I tell him about my project and how its all-encompassing nature has made me feel completely out of touch with what’s going on in the world. “You know the Royals were in the World Series, though, right?” John asks, and I have to laugh because good lord that’s all we talked about for the past two months, so delighted were we with our sudden change of fortune.

John passes out warm hats to the kids and offers me one as well. (I left it in Bill’s car after the game. My bad.) Then he grabs a Tupperware container and insists we have sandwiches. He tells me Bill’s parents used to come to games when they were in college, that his mother had food for all visitors, country ham biscuits being a particular favorite. Bill says that his parents, who’ve passed away, loved being with him and his friends, opening their home and delighting in the widening circle. I know the truth of this in my own life and the joy I’ve had in doing the same. It’s definitely a two way street.

Sometimes this project is like putting together a puzzle. There are things you know – the corners and edges, and things you don’t – that middle part of the sky. That bit of information fills in the roots of Bill’s kindness.

Sometimes this project is like putting together a puzzle. There are things you know – the corners and edges, and things you don’t – that middle part of the sky. That bit of information fills in the roots of Bill’s kindness.

He hands me my ticket and we move with the crowd past the Buffalo Wild Wings stand, and then into the tunnel where they are selling every food I love from the county fair—funnel cakes and footlong corn dogs chief among them. Our seats are awesome and Bill tells me that the team’s entrance is something I might want to see, so I am definitely paying attention when the music starts and every person in the stadium starts jumping up and down. At that moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m not a Hokie fan. I love the ritual and pageantry of it and I want them to destroy Boston College. “Just so you know, they fire that cannon at the end,” he says. I still jump when it goes off, but I’m grateful for the warning.

The Hokies score early and then struggle. Bill chats with the people in front of us who’ve come in from DC. The guy next to me yells, “Chokie!” with some regularity and just before halftime Bill says, “There’s no shame in going out to the car. It’s really cold and you don’t have a dog in this fight.” I stay and watch the band’s halftime performance, but at a certain point I’m just too cold and tired to hang on. The words, “I think…” are barely out of my mouth when Bill hands me the keys.

I turn the car on and run the heat and try to tweet but my fingers are a little frozen and several thousand Hokies are also apparently using the network connections. I close my eyes and actually fall asleep a couple of times. When Bill comes out to the car and tells me that they lost in the last minute of the game, I’m at least awake enough to sympathize. Angie calls and they decide on a place to eat.


It feels like there are a thousand people waiting at the restaurant. The introvert in me is completely overwhelmed, but I recognize Angie’s face and then Clare and William and I hug them all which they tolerate surprisingly well. This is all so weird and I’m just so grateful they’re going along with it. We sit down and order and then it’s only two or three days until they bring our food and I’m flooded with memories of going out to eat with my own family, all the games and bartering to just keep body and soul together—hell I used to let the little ones completely disassemble my wallet if it bought me five minutes.

Clare and William are wonderful though, William wiggling around and playing a game with Bill, while Clare intently listens to the conversation the grownups are having. We’ve just begun the story of how Angie and Bill met when Bill asks Clare to escort William to the cashier for change. Clare says no, respectfully but firmly and I know it’s because she’s afraid she’ll miss something. So Bill takes him instead and it’s a moment that I still haven’t stopped thinking about, because I’ve been the child who wanted to listen in, but didn’t have the nerve to say no. And I’ve been the parent who badly wanted to finish a conversation and finally learned how to let go instead.

By the time they get back, I’ve heard about Bill and Angie’s first kiss and William has two hefty super balls in his hand, one of which he hands to Clare. The next few minutes are hilarious to the non-parent at the table, balls bouncing out of control, and Bill apologizing for what surely felt like a good decision at the time. When Clare loses hers, William heads under the table and comes up victorious as a deep-sea diver. This feels like a good moment to leave while we’re winning, so we grab our coats and say goodbyes out front.

I’ll see Bill and the kids the next morning at church, but not Angie, so we hug each other, this time for real, and I feel that same goodbye sadness again. I tell her I’ll come back, but not when it’s cold. She mentions a summer music event that happens in their little town and I remember seeing the pictures Bill tweeted and thinking to myself, Oh gosh, isn’t this living?

I take a back way to the hotel in Roanoke, and I’m not sure whether fatigue or GPS are to blame. But somewhere amidst dark roads and the lights of kitchen windows, I realize how grateful I am to be on the ground, seeing the sidewalks, native grasses, and highways that have shaped these people I am getting to know. Forty-five minutes later, I show up at the hotel looking like a cartoon character version of tired, which may be what prompts the angel at the front desk to upgrade me to the concierge floor. I want to jump on the bed and do an upgrade dance when I get in the room, but instead I lay my cheek against the perfectly pressed sheets and just say thank you.

I realize how grateful I am to be on the ground, seeing the sidewalks, native grasses, and highways that have shaped these people I am getting to know.


The next morning I’m late for church. I don’t attend any more, but this one habit I’ve apparently retained. Bill texts and tells me they’re in the second row at St. Andrew’s but I come in a side door, have no idea where I am, and might have walked across the altar but for the sight of William’s face. The church is old and there is beauty in every wall and window. The words are no longer familiar to me, but I chime in when I can, comforted by the lilting accent of the older man next to me and the knowledge, finally, that the love of God and the embrace of the universe don’t rest on me getting everything right. Clare is home sick, so William wants to hang with us rather than going to children’s church, which seems like a good decision when I see one kid repeatedly whacking the youth in front of him with a stuffed animal that was just in his mouth.

William has a class after church, so we move speedily through the donut line, drop him off and then sit in the lobby to talk for one last hour, beginning with Richard Rohr, the Franciscan mystic whose words radiated through the digital space and revolutionized my life via Bill’s tweets a couple of years ago. He’s revolutionized Bill’s too. I know this because of how much he’s mentioned his own frailty and efforts for change. We’re both firstborn kids who spent so many years wanting to make everybody happy; who imagined the perfect lives and families we would one day have; and who let go of that daydream for the messy joy of reality, finally understanding that our God was far too small. The similarity of our experience and lessons is uncanny. One hour takes a minute and then class is over.

Bill tells William he can run around the lawn and he laps us twice by the time we get to my car. Bill hands me a gift, a set of DVDs with Father Rohr and another teacher he loves and I kiss William’s head three times, two to share with Clare and Angie. It’s been less than 24 hours since I arrived, but I tell Bill goodbye as a friend and once again feel the bittersweet nature of a parting.

The day is glorious, mountains and valleys a tapestry of color, lit with an electric blue sky. I’d asked everyone to send me a playlist for the road, and I turn Bill’s on as I leave the mountains. I’m an hour away when I hear a song I don’t recognize, a Spotify bonus – Jason Isbell’s Traveling Alone. It’s the first time I feel them all traveling with me.

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