The buzz had built for a while, from the coaches who recruited and evaluated him, to the players who chased him on the practice fields.

Virginia Tech's football family wasn't so bold as to predict that its new quarterback would help the Hokies to the brink of a national championship in 1999. What they knew was that they always had a chance when Michael Vick was on the field.

Before he made and squandered millions, before one of the most precipitous falls in professional sports history, Vick was a comet streaking across the college football sky.

"It was one of the few times in my career that I saw greatness in a guy," former Tech offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rickey Bustle said.

Vick possessed remarkable gifts: speed, quickness, elusiveness, major-league arm, spring-loaded release and competitive hunger.

The Hokies' youngest starter began the season with a dazzling somersault into the end zone against James Madison. He concluded the season the following January on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome, unable to overcome Tech miscues and Florida State's playmakers in the national-championship game.

In between, the redshirt freshman from Newport News was the Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. He led the nation in pass efficiency, and his rating set an NCAA freshman record. He was third in voting for the Heisman Trophy, matching the best finish for a freshman.

In the 11 years of the Bowl Championship Series, Vick is the only rookie to quarterback his team to the title game.

Vick supplied a DVD's worth of highlights. He was the kind of performer who other players stopped to watch. He had magic in his left arm. He seemed to be on wheels, while defenders clomped around in work boots.

"I remember the three guys from ESPN," said senior associate director of athletics Sharon McCloskey, referring to college football broadcasters Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, "being on the sideline and they were in awe of his speed and ability. That was unbelievable, the guys that you always see on TV talking about everybody else, and here they were talking about our team and our quarterback. That was exciting."

Vick, now with the Philadelphia Eagles after serving 20 months in federal custody for his role in a dogfighting operation, was unavailable for this story. Long before he became must-see TV and the No. 1 draft choice, he fired the imaginations of coaches and teammates.

Assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh, who was with North Carolina at the time, went to now defunct Ferguson High to recruit a defensive player in 1994 and remembered being intrigued by the Mariners' young, skinny, left-handed quarterback.

When Cavanaugh went to Tech two years later, the Peninsula remained part of his recruiting territory. One of his first calls was to Warwick High coach Tommy Reamon — Ferguson had closed down, and Reamon and Vick relocated to Warwick.

While much of the area was abuzz over Hampton High and two-sport All-American Ronald Curry, Vick was known mostly to college football coaches and scouts.

"I thought Michael had the 'it' factor," Cavanaugh said. "He didn't have many good players around him. I just thought he was the better quarterback."

When Vick went to Tech and Curry to North Carolina, with the intention of playing both football and basketball, longtime Hokies assistant Billy Hite told anybody who asked that Tech got the better quarterback. He believed that Vick fit Tech's system better, and that playing two sports would inhibit Curry's development.

Head coach Frank Beamer remained committed to redshirting Vick in 1998, even when injuries to Al Clark forced him to use backups Dave Meyer and Nick Sorensen. Vick terrorized the Hokies' nationally ranked defense on the scout team in '98 and the following spring as the presumptive starter.

"You would hear our defense say, 'Boys, you got one coming,'" said assistant Bryan Stinespring, who still has a Vick bobblehead in his office. "They're coming off the field, they're mad. Because this guy we can't contain."

"Then, once we got into spring ball, it was like this (new) dimension on the field. We'd marvel. We'd stop. Something would happen and people would look at each other: 'What the hell was that?' Then you'd come back in and watch the tape and you'd go, 'Wow.' There were a lot of wows out there."