By David Teel and Dave Fairbank
247-4636 | 247-4637
August 24, 2009
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."
Vick rushed for three touchdowns in the season opener against James Madison, including the somersault that tweaked his ankle and forced him to miss the next game.
He averaged 31 yards per completion in Tech's 31-7 victory at Virginia. He passed for 248 yards and accounted for five touchdowns, in the first half, of Tech's 58-20 win at Rutgers.
Vick efficiently commanded the offense in a 62-0 homecoming rout of No. 16 Syracuse, the most lopsided shutout loss ever by a ranked team.
"I thought, he's probably not going to immediately help us," said linebacker Jamel Smith, now a graduate assistant coach at Tech. "I'm a realistic person. A lot of people talked about him, but I have to see it to believe it. Even after the JMU game — that was a Division I-AA team — he had to prove it to me.
"He really proved it to me the night we played Syracuse. That was a big-time stage, and they had a big-time defense with Dwight Freeney, Keith Bulluck and Morlon Greenwood. That's when I said, 'Man, we really got a chance.'"
Hite recalled the Temple game, a 62-7 rout at Veterans Stadium in Philly, where Vick accounted for 305 yards of offense, including two long touchdown runs.
"Even when he screwed up, he turned it into a big play," Hite said. "That's the thing. That's how good the guy was. He had the wrong wristband on. ... He called the formation, everything was wrong. Goes 80 (actually 75). Nobody did what they were supposed to do on the play. Nobody blocked the right people, and he went 80 yards."
Vick accounted for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-14 win against Boston College in a Lane Stadium regular-season finale that was part coronation, part celebration.
One year later, Vick rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns as the Hokies beat BC 48-34. The last of his touchdowns was a spectacular 82-yard run that left defenders spinning and sprawling all over the Alumni Stadium carpet.
"He was phenomenal," said then-Eagles coach Tom O'Brien, now at North Carolina State. "We blitzed and got him, but called for offside. We blitzed again and he went 70-some yards for a touchdown. That's one of those plays where you look at each other and say, 'What are you gonna do?'"
And of course, there was "The Drive." In early November in Morgantown, W.Va., with Tech's unbeaten season on the line, Vick took the Hokies 58 yards in 66 seconds, with no timeouts, to set up Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal at the gun. Tech 22, West Virginia 20.
The centerpiece of that drive was Vick's find-another-gear, 26-yard run to the Mountaineers' 36-yard line. In two games versus West Virginia, Vick accounted for 595 yards.
"He was THE most difficult to contain," retired Mountaineers coach Don Nehlen said. "I dreaded it when pass protection broke down. I almost hoped they would block everybody, because we had a better chance of him throwing high or low, or so hard it went through the receiver's hands."
No one was more disappointed than Vick that Tech's 2000 season opener against Georgia Tech was canceled because of a lightning storm that hit Blacksburg — ESPN analyst Corso's rental car was struck by a bolt and fried in the parking lot — just minutes before kickoff.
Stinespring remembered Vick saying, "Let's go, let's go."
"I said, 'Michael, it's lightning,'" Stinespring said. "He said, 'It's not gonna hit me.' I think he really and truly believed he'd be playing fast enough that he wouldn't get hit."
Wideout Andre Davis often was on the receiving end of Vick's deep launches, averaging a remarkable 27.5 yards per catch with nine touchdowns.
"When you have a great player like Michael," said Davis, entering his eighth year in the NFL, "that defenses have to account for on every play and draws so much attention, sometimes it opens up opportunities for other guys, and I think that's what happened. It was nice to be able to run free and catch those deep passes."
The people who were around Vick the most said that he was a good teammate, a player who didn't rest on his athletic gifts.
"He was one of the most enjoyable guys that I've ever coached," said Bustle, the head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, "from the standpoint of: He had a great smile on his face every day; he wanted to be good; he wanted to work to be better. He was fun to coach, not just because he was a great athlete — that was kind of icing on the cake. He was a fun guy for me personally to coach, because I enjoyed being around him so much."
As the legend of Vick grew, so did the demands on his time. McCloskey, in addition to her regular duties, essentially became the Assistant A.D. for Michael Vick that fall.
"I think it happened at a staff meeting where I wasn't there," McCloskey joked. "That's always the way. They just decided it should be somebody who wasn't with football to deal with all the requests. Because there were requests for unbelievable things, and you knew he wasn't going to be able to keep up with it."
McCloskey fielded requests for Vick to come to schools, to civic events, to all manner of functions.
"People wanted to fly him in for a birthday party," McCloskey said. "My little brother's having a birthday, and I want to fly him in for this ...' I had people that would almost threaten me — 'We're big donors' — and I'd say, sorry, can't help you. Somebody from Volvo called and wanted to fly him in for an employee party. I said, 'He can't do that, he's too busy.'"
McCloskey recruited several students. They assembled a form letter and made some cards with Vick's photograph and a stamped autograph, she said, just so they could send something to the dozens of people who called and wrote.
"I basically said 'No' to everything," McCloskey said. "He didn't have time to do all that. I understood what it was like for him and I felt like we had to do it. Sometimes, it's hard for somebody like that to say no. And then you worry if he does agree to do something, that it might violate NCAA rules."
Vick's and the Hokies' season culminated in the national-championship game at the Sugar Bowl. He accounted for 322 of Tech's 503 yards of offense and a pair of touchdowns, despite pressure from all angles and repeated hits from Florida State's nasty-quick defense.
The Hokies overcame a 21-point deficit and led heading into the fourth quarter, but Florida State pulled away to win 46-29. Afterward, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, who had lavishly praised Vick before the game, said that the freshman was even better than he realized.
Nearly 10 years later, Bowden was at the ACC's preseason football media gathering. His 1999 team was the conference's last national football champ. He was asked what it would take for an ACC school to insert itself into title contention.
Bowden's response was immediate: "Get a Michael Vick."
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