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May 5, 2000: Avoiding unsavory characters is the price of success

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Virginia Tech's Michael Vick is a target. Opposing defenses shadow his every step. A media horde that expands with each dot-com venture dissects his every word. Obsessive fans and weasely autograph hounds pester him every day.

But those are mere annoyances for college football's most compelling player entering the 2000 season. Vick's most daunting challenge, road games at East Carolina, Boston College, Syracuse and Miami notwithstanding, is surviving the rancid side of sports fame.

Agents and their minions. Financial advisers. Hangers-on. They are like roaches. You may only see one, but rest assured, scores of others lurk in the woodwork.

The madness starts now. Last season Vick was a curiosity, a redshirt freshman quarterback who didn't begin posting gaudy numbers until early October. Now he's a legitimate Heisman Trophy and All-America candidate; opposing coaches, intending no malice, wonder if he'll bolt early for the NFL; draftniks pencil him in as a first-round selection; NFL personnel gurus break down his game tapes.

Wisely, Virginia Tech administrators want to shelter Vick without smothering him. They plan to limit media access and screen requests for public appearances. They hope to spare him the rancid side.

But neither Vick nor any high-profile athlete can be spared completely. The bad guys are too shifty, too numerous.

The good news is, Vick appears to be well- grounded. Ditto his support group of family, friends and coaches.

But their lives are about to change. The reason, of course, is money, and Vick could be a moneymaking machine whether he opts to join the NFL in 2001, 2002 or 2003.

For example, say Vick has a sensational season in 2000. Say he becomes the first player in Division I-A history to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season. Say he's a first-team All-American and projected as the top pick in the NFL draft. Say he can't resist the temptation to turn pro and cash in.

No one could blame him. Not when quarterback Tim Couch, the No. 1 pick of the 1999 draft, signed a $48 million, seven-year contract that included a $12.25 million signing bonus. Not when he has incentives that could pay him an additional $11.4 million.

Better yet, say Vick decides he loves Virginia Tech and college football. Say he follows the example of Peyton Manning and exhausts his college eligibility and, most important, earns his degree. Say he's the No. 1 pick of the 2003 draft. Projecting modest salary inflation, it isn't folly to figure Vick signing a contract worth $75 million, of which an agent's take would be approximately $1.5 million.

It's those kinds of numbers that prompt agents and their ilk to take the low road. Rarely so bold and stupid as to pay a college athlete directly, they offer cash and jobs to family members, recruit students to funnel money and gifts to athletes, and pester the athlete and his family with exaggerated claims of his worth.

The calls come at all hours and to all venues. Athletes and their families are especially vulnerable on road trips, where hotel lobbies often are crawling with unsavory characters.

Thankfully, these issues weren't front-and- center last season. Since the NFL requires potential draftees to be at least three years removed from high school, Vick couldn't have turned pro. After the 2000 season he can, and like it or not, questions will be asked. Repeatedly. It's the price one pays for success.

Heck, the speculation has already started. During its telecast of the draft in April, ESPN projected potential No. 1 picks for next year. The first player to hit the screen was the Hokies' No. 7.

Unfair? Perhaps. Accurate? Maybe.

Regardless, get used to it.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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