Arnold Stawrosky went to work every day in the Trenton, New Jersey, area with his trusty metal lunch pail holding the meal his wife, Helen, packed.
Stawrosky couldn’t have envisioned his trusty companion would become a symbol known for work ethic and toughness across the country.
Virginia Tech’s newly minted co-defensive coordinators Bud Foster and Rod Sharpless had a blue-collar work ethic in mind when they were brainstorming ideas for a tangible object to represent the defense they wanted to build.
“We just had our first back-to-back winning seasons, but what was going to separate us?” Foster said. “We wanted something solid, that’s there. That would really mean something. You know, Virginia, North Carolina and Penn State were all really good at the time. We were surrounded.”
Foster thought about his days growing up in Nokomis, Illinois, an area known for its coal mines, and his father, Robert.
The elder Foster was a head sales rep for a saran wrap company in St. Louis before moving his family two hours east and starting up a Western Auto, which gradually expanded as the years went by.
“It went from being a little bitty hardware store to having appliances, then he bought this opera house and turned that into a furniture center,” Foster said. “He probably could have sold me in a heartbeat. He could sell anything. He was just a hard-working dude.”
Sharpless didn’t grow up around coal miners or steel workers in North Carolina, but he always associated the lunch pail with hard work.
“I’ll never forget after spring practice [in 1995], we were talking about having a lot of good players, hard-working guys, the epitome of blue-collar type guys,” Sharpless said. “We constantly said that in our staff meetings, so I just said, ‘Why don’t we get [a lunch pail]?’”
Foster’s biggest concern was finding the right lunch pail for the job.
“You can’t have a Mickey Mouse lunch pail, some cartoon character on there,” Foster said.
What followed was a country-wide search by administrators, coaches and spouses before the 1995 season that involved visits to antique stores and flea markets. During the summer, Sharpless came up empty-handed in visits to Kentucky and North Carolina.
“It was constantly on my mind,” Sharpless said. “They had plenty of modern lunch pails, but we wanted something old and beat up. It was exhausting, I just couldn’t find one.”
Enter the late Arnold Stawrosky.
Sharpless and his wife visited his mother-in-law, Theresa DiColo, in New Jersey. Sharpless asked DiColo if she knew of anyone in the blue-collar neighborhood of Mercer County that had an old lunch pail. DiColo asked her neighbor Helen Stawrosky, who held onto her husband’s old lunch pail after he passed away in 1994.
“The day we were leaving to go back to Blacksburg, my mother-in-law said, ‘Here’s your lunch,’ Sharpless said. “My lunch? I didn’t understand. It was in this brown bag. This is my lunch? She told me to open it up, and there’s this beat-up lunch pail. I said, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ It had the dents, that hard-knocks look. It was perfect.”
Well, almost perfect. Foster wanted to add some Virginia Tech flavor to the lunch pail.
“Bud brought it in and goes, ‘You need to paint this,’” longtime Virginia Tech administrator John Ballein said. “Paint it? I painted the ‘VT’ on the first one. I did it with a paper towel to make it kind of look sloppy.”
That first year, when Tech went on to go 10-2 and beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl, the lunch pail held 3x5 index cards of goals for the team and each player. It was handed out that season to the player that best exemplified the lunch pail work ethic on a weekly basis, a tradition which continues today.
Now Foster starts out the week of practice by putting the lunch pail in the locker of a deserving player. The team arrives to the facility on Tuesday morning not knowing who will get the honor that week. Foster details his decision at the team meeting later in the afternoon.
The same player could earn the lunch pail week after week, as linebacker Rayshard Ashby has this season. Former Tech defensive tackle Ricky Walker had the lunch pail for nearly the entire 2018 season.
Ashby has held onto the lunch pail for weeks on end, but he made it clear — the honor doesn’t get old. His first time carrying it came over the summer.
“I had been wanting to get it since last year when I started playing more. It was a goal line of mine. I knew it would take hard work,” Ashby said. “It means a lot to carry it, the tradition it upholds and to get to that standard. I just appreciate it so much.”
The lunch pail holder is responsible for bringing the pail to meetings and practice as well as the game, a responsibility Ashby doesn’t take lightly. He laughed when asked if he takes it home or uses it to carry his lunch.
“You probably can, but I don’t think you should. What if you lose it? I’d be scared,” Ashby said, laughing. “I keep it in my locker until we hit the road.”
The content of the lunch pail varies every season. The one constant in recent years has been what Ashby described as a “covenant” signed by the entire defense. The rest of the lunch pail’s contents are obtained throughout the season.
“Throughout the year, if you get gloves from the other team after a win, or if you go away, you get the turf or their grass and put it in there, or other items you get,” Ashby said. “The more you win, the more stuff you get.”
The lunch pail took on a special significance in 2007 when the football team put the names and ribbons of the 32 victims killed in an on-campus shooting.
The lunch pail has gained some weight, with Tech winning five of its last six games.
“It’s heavy now,” Ashby said. “When I pick it up, it hurts my shoulder a little bit. I’m happy about that.”
Foster by his own admission isn’t all that nostalgic, but one of his regrets as his retirement looms relates to the lunch pail. In a recent conversation with The Roanoke Times, Foster lamented not keeping track of the Hokies that were awarded the lunch pail on game day throughout the years.
“I wish I would’ve done that,” Foster said. “For me, we got to go the next game, man, but that would have been the who’s who. Some guys had it for a season, some from game to game and a lot of good players held onto that thing.”
Foster even isn’t totally sure how many lunch pails Virginia Tech has used the last 28 years.
There’s a former one in his office (along with one on reserve), the original is on display in the memorabilia case at the Merryman Center and former Tech defensive end Daryl Tapp was awarded permanent possession of one. Foster cycled through a few others before landing on the current one a couple of years ago.
How did Foster decide when to replace one?
“They were just beat up,” Foster said. “The one out there I punched and players punched it, there’s no telling what they do with it, you know what I mean? The one we have now I’ve had to fix it a couple times. For about a year, the lid would just pop off.”
The lack of records was partly because neither Foster or Sharpless envisioned the lunch pail having such an enduring legacy when they held it up for players to see in the first meeting of fall camp back in 1995.
“The Virginia Tech fan base got behind it,” Sharpless said. “They started having lunch box key chains, flags and T-shirts. Everybody just got behind it. They all took personal ownership of the brand. It’s now symbolic for Virginia Tech, not just the football team, and now everybody tries to do stuff like that. But it’s not like the lunch pail. It’s not.”
That it would go on to star in its own ESPN commercial alongside the “College GameDay” crew was beyond even the coaches’ wildest expectations.
While Foster isn’t sure what the future holds for the lunch pail, it will always have an important place in the story of Virginia Tech football.
“That thing’s been so cool, man, it really has, from the standpoint of developing a brand and developing a culture,” Foster said. “We’ll see what happens. If [head coach Justin Fuente] keeps with the tradition. … He’s that kind of guy, but we’ll see.”
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