High spirits: Wahoos tackle fourth-year fifth

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READHTHEHOOK.COM

The traditions at Mr. Jefferson's University can seem strange to an outsider. Some have students running naked down the Lawn, keeping mum about secretive chants and societies, or drinking... a lot. For the students who claim to "work hard and play hard," the University of Virginia provides ample opportunities for both.

The "fourth-year fifth" is a fairly recent tradition, dating only from the '80s, but the activity has ruffled more feathers than a pack of late-night streakers. After all, a naked run down the Lawn has not ended in death.

The tradition of the "fourth-year fifth" follows these rules: On the morning of the last home football game, fourth-year students, aka seniors, consume a fifth of liquor to celebrate four years of sub-par football. While the type of liquor is up to the drinker, students are supposed to finish the fifth by kick-off time. It's an intense tradition, defended by students who claim that it isn't alcoholism "until you graduate."

This year, the Virginia-Virginia Tech game kicked off at noon– before many Wahoos are usually out of bed. Rumor had it that the early kick-off of the November 19 event was planned to prevent students from drinking the fifth, but lucrative television broadcasts (the game aired nationally on ESPN) typically have more sway than trying to out-guess beverage-obsessed students.

One fourth-year– along with a group of his fraternity brothers– proved his dedication to UVA by drinking the fifth, and he agreed to let a Hook reporter tag along. This is his story.

***

Our protagonist, who demanded anonymity (let's call him John), is up by 7:30am on Saturday. He plans to drink the fifth of Jim Beam chilling in his freezer before kick-off, so he heads to Littlejohn's deli for a stomach-padding breakfast of egg sandwiches and tortilla chips.

Back in his neighbors' living room filled with two plump couches and a huge TV, John begins sipping his first drink (Beam and Coke) by 8:30. Of the eight guys in the neighboring apartments, four are attempting the fifth. ("If only 50 percent are doing it," John says, "that kind of makes me feel like an alcoholic.")

Each has his reasons, and they theorize about the fifth over Sports Center. One abstainer credits his love for Virginia football rather than a sense of responsibility for his sobriety. "I mean, I could do it," he says, "but I would totally black out. And I really want to at least remember the game."

As the rest of the group arrive, fifths in hand, the eight guys settle in for the next two hours.

One is drinking Grey Goose while others choose Ciroc, Belvedere, or Gentleman's Jack. Feeling sleepy, one mixes Red Bull with the vodka in his sorority cup. John, still sipping his Beam, defends his southern choice, saying since he drinks it regularly, he might as well now.

As Sports Center drones in the background, the boys make more drinks, and talk about Thanksgiving. John has an 11am flight home the next day. Others have long drives on Sunday.

"But, hey," one rationalizes, "we'll be sober by then."

If you didn't know it, you might not guess these guys are planning to down 750 milliliters of alcohol before noon on a bright Saturday morning. They nonchalantly lounge around, ridiculing the Hokies and remembering– remembering how drunk they were that time on the Corner, that time over Spring Break, or that time at the frat house.

They avoid talking about graduation, crying "shut up" when the subject is broached. Imbibing at 9am requires focus.

***

Heavy drinking at UVA is nothing new. Easters, an annual mud-fest of drunken debauchery in Mad Bowl, was a hallmark of UVA life until it was banned in 1983 after at least a decade of drunken brawls and pelting passing cars with mud.

The Foxfield Races provided a venue for students to put on their Sunday best for a day of drinking, and many 21-year-old Wahoos celebrate reaching the age of majority by trying to swallow 21 drinks during the "Corner Crawl," noting each shot with tick marks on their forearm or chest. Such a lifestyle has gained UVA recognition– and notoriety.

In 1987, UVA made Playboy's now-infamous roundup of the best party schools in the nation. The list put Mr. Jefferson's University at #10. But by 2002, the only Virginia schools to be named was JMU at #25. (Playboy didn't forget about UVA entirely, though. A few years back, The Biltmore Grill was named to a Playboy list of hot bars.)

Earlier administrations have wrung their hands over heavy alcohol consumption, but current UVA president John Casteen can point to a string of preventive measures enacted under his watch.

In 2003, Casteen received an award from a national college presidents' group for his efforts to confront alcohol abuse.

He has increased alternative programming at the school, created two University-wide alcohol task forces and increased peer health education, formed a permanent alcohol advisory committee, and moved UVA's Center for Alcohol and Substance Education from the psychiatric medicine department to the Dean of Students' office.

Of course, he had some encouragement. On the day of the final home football game in 1997, fourth-year art history major Leslie Baltz was found at the bottom of her apartment steps with a blood-alcohol content of 0.429. (The legal driving limit is .08.)

Baltz died of head injuries in an alcohol-dazed fall, and her death galvanized efforts against binge drinking. This included the 1999 creation of a group called Fourth Years Acting Responsibly, which raised alcohol awareness by urging students to sign a pledge not to participate in the ritual.

***

As cell phones ring in the apartment and more drinks are poured, someone turns on the stereo. One guy waxes poetic about how the 1976 film Rocky (which has replaced Sports Center) is emblematic of the fourth-year fifth. "It's like an obstacle we're trying to overcome," he explains.

Another guy adds: "The [Fourth Years Acting Responsibly] pledge just means you have to drink responsibly. I could drink a fifth responsibly."

"There will always be a few who will tempt fate," says pundit and former UVA student Larry Sabato, "but I think the media across the country have put a spotlight on students dying of alcohol poisoning, and that has really helped."

Since the fifth became known as a problem, the University administration has worked with students to create alternatives. One is the "Fourth-Year 5K," an annual race created in 1991 by Marga Odahowski, former director of the Peer Health Educator program.

"So many people are outdoors running and playing tennis– our culture here as a whole is more into fitness– so it just occurred to me that perhaps a more integrated approach would be to create a new tradition," says Odahowski.

Nearly 15 years later, Odahowski has become the director of studies for the International Residence College, but the race– whose proceeds now benefit the Leslie Baltz Foundation– remains an annual tradition typically held the morning of the last football game. Winners are given prizes such as $100 gift certificates to the UVA Bookstore and coupons to Corner restaurants, and they're recognized by President Casteen later that day at the game.

Fourth-year Julia Siegel, the 5K intern in the Peer Health office, helped organize this year's race, one of the largest to date– 400 of the 600 registered runners participated.

"It started out to combat the fourth-year fifth," says Siegel, "but it really combats the high-risk drinking that happens before every football game."

In 2001, the University won a $257,000 Education Department grant "to change the role of alcohol within fraternity and sorority culture."

*****

Back at the apartment, one of the party returns from smoking a cigarette, much to the chagrin of his buddies. They revile him for his "disgusting" habit and fix themselves another drink. It's barely 9:30am.

As gangster rap blares from the far room, John is halfway through his fifth, and the alcohol has begun to loosen the other boys up: they belt out the quick rap lyrics in the kitchen.

As John fills up his drink, he realizes he's not very drunk even though his bottle is rapidly emptying. He has an epiphany. A fifth, he says, really isn't that much. The guys decide they probably drink about a fifth on a regular Friday or Saturday night. They're convinced they'll be fine after draining their bottles.

How much is a fifth? Literally, it's a fifth of a gallon, 25.6 ounces. That's 17 one-and-a-half-ounce drinks.

John, standing 6'3" and 185 pounds, is no lightweight, and he says he has probably developed a tolerance over the past four years in Charlottesville. If he drinks his fifth in three hours, he'll have a blood alcohol concentration of .329, according to the calculator page at intox.com.

According to the National Institutes of Health, that level would render most men of his weight unconscious. Coma (and death) could occur above the .4 level. NIH estimates that 317 Americans die annually from alcohol poisoning.

UVA's Center for Alcohol and Substance Education shows decreasing rates of binging at the University. In 2001, 13.2 percent of fourth-years attempted the fifth; by 2004, the percentage had fallen to 10.3 percent.

But that's not to say drinking has been eradicated. In a random sample of 2,600 UVA students, only 30 percent reported not drinking on the weekend. Of those who do drink, almost 40 percent have four or more drinks.

John and his friends are, clearly, among the latter. As they down ounce after ounce of liquor, the Tech-bashing continues.

"God, they probably had to sell a cow for a ticket," one guesses. One of the more sober guys makes a plate of English muffins and honey to pass around. "I can't eat that sh*t at 10am!" says another as he takes another gulp of Ciroc.

The guys are now in small clumps talking, drinking, and singing. One group discusses how fashion photos drift into porn. Another group is brainstorming about how not to throw up at the game and where to relieve themselves. The last group is getting a little wary– they're beginning to realize how much they must drink on a regular basis when they seem to have so little reaction to the quantity they've downed so far.

Back in front of TV news, the guys yell at President Bush, talk about hurricanes, and relentlessly denigrate Virginia Tech's head coach, Frank Beamer. The bottles are emptying. John has only a quarter left, and he's starting to "feel good."

Just before 10 o'clock, the boys are on their last drink before heading to their fraternity house.

The size of the fifth resurfaces. "People overestimate how big a fifth really is," says a guy who stands 6'7". "I did it last year with some friends, but this year I decided to change the color of the alcohol."

The music is now accompanied by a round of burping.

For Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Isn't Telling You, a lot of drinking results from students seeing alcohol as forbidden fruit. In addition to creating alternate activities, Seaman– who lived in Charlottesville to research his book– suggests lowering the drinking age.

"Lowering the drinking age wouldn't make the fourth-year fifth disappear, but I think it would, generally speaking, remove some of the aura around alcohol," says Seaman. "It would help at least so that people didn't feel this compulsion to consume alcohol before social events."

***

Once the guys actually get out the door, the goofiness increases. John makes friends with everyone he sees. They teeter across the CSX train tracks along 15th Street, a popular crossing for bar-hopping students, and charge through a parking lot– insulting anyone in maroon and cheering on the 'Hoos all the way to the frat house.

The house itself is an old Jeffersonian mansion with deeply worn wood floors and long wooden tables in a rough dining room. The bar– usually covered with beer and disposable cups– is hidden by mountains of pulled pork and buns. Girls with orange sweatshirts and ribbons in their hair chat it up with the high-spirited frat boys scarfing down BBQ.

John and the others take their bottles to the front room to watch a game of pool. Not long after our arrival, John and his fraternity brothers spot Hokie fans in the crowd. They're still "feeling fine" but won't tolerate a Hokie fan sharing their air. One brother decides the only solution is to pick up each Tech-clad girl and cart her to the back parking lot. Approaching one group, he is met with squeals of merriment, and the girls scurry away.

A louder shriek calls John and the others to the front room. The same very determined brother has captured a Hokie, slung her over his shoulder, and is taking her out back. He returns, grabs another, and repeats the action.

The back door bursts open, and an apparently drunk brother runs in, jumps up on one of the dining room tables, and launches onto the shoulder of another guy, spilling four beers in the process. No one seems to notice (except for the marginally terrified parents visiting their son, who seem shocked by the activities in the frat house).

Two more girls are carried outside by the frat boys.

As John and the others get more drunk, hardly a sentence is spoken without a string of expletives. Clutching his bottle, John stumbles up to a group of friends. He's taking a breather, although he can't stomach the BBQ.

As people enter the house, the guy next to John greets them with, "Booze there, BBQ there." The typical response: "Booze!" as couples head away from enough pulled pork to feed 100 people.

John heads to the porch for the final stretch where his frat brothers are energetically berating anyone in maroon within earshot. Another Hokie girl is carried out front. "This is the fourth time!" she yells.

John pours his last drink, filling the cup with straight Beam, and gulps it down, replying at the same time to a girl's question: "Yeah, politics honors. I'm smart." It's 11:20am.

As he throws down his cup, John says he doesn't feel as drunk as he should. "I guess I drink... a lot?" His eyes alight with inspiration, he climbs to the porch, and to the cheering of fellow students, smashes his bottle on the sidewalk with surprising authority for a guy who has just consumed 25.6 ounces of bourbon.

As John and the others are mobilizing to hit the Lawn on the way to the stadium, he shrieks and hops out of the way. Another empty bottle flies from the porch, barely missing the back of a reporter's head.

Walking through a sea of orange on the way to the stadium, the guys pass a girl being dragged along. She's crying hysterically and cannot walk. Not slowing down, her friends weave through the crowd toward the entrance of Scott Stadium.

A frat brother decides they need some grub before they go to the game. "Just one more tailgate!" he yells.

When they arrive at a spread, they exchange stories with guys already there. "Did you finish?" "F*ck yeah! Did you?"

This feeling of accomplishment is marked by what can only be described as a Xena Warrior Princess battle cry, and they dig into a mountain of fried chicken on a tailgate folding table.

When the gang finally gets in the stadium, they head immediately to the grassy Hill, screaming at Hokies the whole way. Strings of obscenities fill the air, and lewd gestures punctuate the trip.

As the game starts, the once-wobbly boys gain their footing on the Hill and sober up, surprised that they have survived with so little consequence. One has a flask, officially forbidden in Scott Stadium. The others just want to watch the action.

For the majority of the game, the guys criticize plays, antagonize Tech fans, and nearly get into to several fights. But they can stand UVA's embarrassing performance only so long, and they decamp at the end of the 3rd quarter with the score a humiliating 52-7. (UVA scored seven more points in the fourth quarter.)

Rather than resting up or eating, the boys head to a string of Corner bars for a post-drinking drink. Finally, after watching the end of the game on the big screen at Orbit Billiards, John heads home for a nap. But it isn't long before he's back out– for happy hour specials.

Even though UVA lost the game, John and his buddies wind up staying out past midnight, drinking and partying. Some young women were finishing their fifths at bars around 5pm, but John and the guys were long past that.

In the end, John seems glad he did it. As for a lesson learned, he says he found out how "small" a fifth actually is.

The fact that John and his friends weren't violently ill or piecing together the game the next morning might just be a fluke. Or perhaps he really has built up a tolerance over the past four years in Charlottesville.

"At this point, he's able to metabolize it," says Susan Bruce, who heads UVA's Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. "A novice drinker could never get to that point."

Bruce says that John may already be harming his liver as well as his chance for an alcoholism-free life. "I can't diagnose someone from one incident," says Bruce, "but students like that are running a risk of developing long-term problems."

Indeed, a novice or a smaller person might be dead. The online calculator indicates that a 125-woman attempting John's feat would register a blood alcohol level of .536.

John wasn't the only one surviving the ritual unharmed. According to Ed Myers, interim manager of the UVA hospital emergency room since February, the last home football game didn't produce an unusual influx of inebriated students. But just like a normal weekend in Charlottesville, the ER saw more than a few students who had too much to drink.

What's the protocol for alcohol poisoning?

"Generally protect their airway and give them IV fluids," says Myers. "We monitor them until they sober up enough to go home." As far as Myers is concerned, there is no "decreasing trend," but, rather, drinking at UVA remains a constant.

UVA spokesperson Carol Wood still wonders at the thought process of students exposed to all the substance abuse education on Grounds– and even support from the athletic department with a game-day video.

"I think people are taking their lives in their hands," she says. "Everybody's system is different, and reacts differently. Where is the line? When will they have that drink that sends them to the emergency room?"


Doilies in the springtime