Notre dame vs Virginia

Notre Dame's Will Fuller (7) runs past Virgina's Maurice Canady (26) for the Fighting Irish's game winning touchdown Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville. SBT Photo / BECKY MALEWITZ 

Mike Bunting is more than the meme.

Of course, most Notre Dame fans know him only as “Sad Virginia Fan” — a limp, devastated corpse hanging like sad laundry over the Scott Stadium railing. He will always be there, a symbol of perpetual suffering, leveled by the full weight of a Will Fuller touchdown.

Bunting transformed from fan to photo right around 7:06 p.m. on Sept. 12, with 12 seconds remaining in Notre Dame’s 34-27 victory over Virginia. Like every other home game, the senior engineering student arrived 90 minutes prior to kickoff, securing front row seats in the student section along with a group of friends.

And, like most other home games in his four years at Virginia, he left disappointed.

“Honestly, being a UVA football fan for four years has been somewhat of a struggle,” Bunting said on Thursday. “Being a committed fan, going to every home game and not being rewarded with a winning season any of my four years has been kind of rough. But with that said, I still go to all the games and cheer my heart out anyway.”

That particular Saturday was no different. He arrived early. He cheered like hell. He hoped for the best while silently expecting the worst.

“UVA always ends up having these great opportunities for victories, if they could just hold on,” he said. “They never really seem to follow through. We’ve come to expect losses after a while, even when we’re up.”

On Sept. 12, the Cavaliers were up, and the clock was running. Virginia running back Albert Reid barreled into the end zone with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter, giving the home team a narrow 27-26 lead over No. 9 Notre Dame. The Scott Stadium crowd erupted in waves of elation, teetering on the verge of inconceivable victory.

Then, Notre Dame backup quarterback DeShone Kizer ran for four yards on fourth-and-2 to extend a desperate drive. Then Kizer found Corey Robinson for 11 yards, then C.J. Prosise for another 17.

The Virginia fans, meanwhile, hovered ever closer to the action, ready to storm the field once the clock ran out on the Irish.

“I’m calculating how I’m going to rush the field with my broken foot,” said Bunting, whose left foot was in a boot after fracturing it a few weeks earlier. “To rush the field from the student section, you have to jump down from a ledge. So I was planning to jump down and land on my only good foot and limp into the middle and celebrate.”

Instead, Virginia’s pre-emptive celebration was replaced with a familiar sorrow. Kizer took a shotgun snap with 18 seconds left, backpedaled a few steps and slung it, unleashing a 50-yard prayer towards a fleet-footed Fuller. Notre Dame’s junior wide receiver nabbed the football at the 1, danced over a tackle and bounded into the end zone.

Bunting crumbled, and the cameras captured it all.

“Since my hands were already on the ledge, I just let them fall forward. I was slouching over the edge, and I remember laying there for a while,” he said. “I didn’t know my picture was getting taken. It was just a true momentary reaction to the loss and realizing that we’re not going to beat a ranked team today … or any other day, for that matter.”

Just like that, “Sad Virginia Fan” was born. The national cameo, which was instantly captured as a screen shot and disseminated through social media, depicted a despondent, lifeless figure draped over the front row of the student section.

ESPN tweeted the photo with the caption, “Every Virginia fan right now …” It was retweeted 2,662 times. A fan’s painting of the image remains the background photo on Fuller’s personal Twitter account.

Suddenly, Bunting was a symbol of widespread, inconsolable grief.

“Basically, the picture stands as an expression of being a UVA football fan,” he said with a laugh. “UVA is good at sports. We’re just not good at football, apparently.”

Because his face wasn’t actually captured on national television, however, Sad Virginia Fan’s identity started as somewhat of a mystery. Bunting’s mother recognized a patch of blond hair on the back of his head, and surmised that this must be her son. Likewise, a few friends connected the dots and published their findings on Facebook.

But, at least for a while, Bunting cherished his partial anonymity.

“The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Thank God that my face isn’t on the picture,’” Bunting said. “It’s the best thing ever to kind of be famous but have nobody know who you are. You’re walking around the grounds the next school day and you’ll hear people talking about it. I was in the line for a bagel and there were guys in line in front of me talking about ‘Sad Virginia Fan.’

“I started talking about it with them, as if I’m not him. ‘Oh yeah, it must have been a devastating loss.’ It’s hilarious to have notoriety, and walk around people that know of you but don’t know it is you.

Eventually, though, the word got out — and Bunting’s newfound status came with some silver linings.

“People that I hadn’t talked to since high school were texting, ‘You’re famous,’” Bunting said. “It opened a lot of doors for me to start talking to people I hadn’t talked to in a while, which was nice.”

In the more than four months since “Sad Virginia Fan” introduced himself to the world, Bunting has done a handful of interviews — with local newspapers and television stations, with reporters chasing the meme.

They aren’t the interviews he’s been looking for.

“I’m a senior and I was looking for jobs at the time,” he said. “I had more interviews for this than my job search, and I was actively searching for jobs. It was kind of frustrating. I’d call my dad and say, ‘Hey dad, I have 10 interviews, but six of them are for the 'Sad Virginia Fan.’”

But, all things considered, Bunting is at peace with his alter ego. “Sad Virginia Fan” is a feeling, not a man. It’s a shoulder to cry on, and the tears keep coming. When the Cavaliers fell 56-14 at home to Boise State on Sept. 25, fans recreated the image. Every time the university’s men’s basketball team stumbles, the photo is passed around.

The football team has piled up four consecutive losing seasons, and that picture encompasses them all.

“It’s become sort of an iconic thing,” he said. “It’s become an icon for the school to express our frustration with loss in a funny way. It pads the loss with a little bit of humor.”

Bunting, to be sure, is much more than the meme. He’s a hard worker, double-majoring in computer engineering and computer science. He’s weighing job offers and graduate school and a new chapter in his life.

He remains a Virginia football fan, too — one with a sense of humor.

“Being a meme, in the end, it was popular for like a week,” Bunting said. “But it’s just a great story to look back at. While the loss was devastating, I’m just happy that some people were able to get a kick out of this.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel