At Virginia Tech, Vick's status as school's hero takes big hit

The Baltimore Sun

Blacksburg, Va. -- Six years ago, Michael Vick came to Jerry Diffell's store in downtown Blacksburg for a news conference. With his No. 7 jerseys hanging on retail racks around him, Vick announced the start of his clothing line, the proceeds of which would go to Virginia Tech.

It was a proud day for Diffell, who has owned and operated the Tech Bookstore since 1986 and who watched Vick's star rise during Tech's run to the national championship game in 1999.

Pride was not on the menu last Tuesday, as Diffell sat at PK's, a sports bar here, for a business luncheon. "All the TVs, on CNN and ESPN, kept flashing Michael Vick," he said.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback was indicted that day by a federal grand jury on a conspiracy charge that he helped create an interstate dogfighting operation.

"He's done some good for this place," Diffell said by phone last week. "But this news is bad. It's sad, because he really did put us on the map. He was a hero to everybody at Virginia Tech, and you hate to see your heroes be knocked down."

Vick's name is synonymous with the Virginia Tech football program. His two seasons as the team's electric quarterback helped elevate the Hokies' national profile.

Vick's jersey hangs in Lane Stadium. His picture appears four times in the first 12 pages of last season's football media guide. His name, coach Frank Beamer has said, has gotten the coaching staff into the living rooms of top recruits. At the Merryman Center, home of Tech's athletic offices, Vick's likeness is on a set of double doors leading to Michael Vick Hall.

But lately, those inside the Merryman Center aren't talking about Vick. The football coaching staff has declined to comment since his indictment. Carmela Smith, administrative assistant for Jim Weaver, said Friday that the athletic director would have no comment.

"He's not a student-athlete of ours, so there's no need to comment," Smith said.

"What's there to say?" said Ryan Ruggero, manager of Top of the Stairs, a Blacksburg watering hole that brims with Hokies fans after every home game. "Everybody that comes in here has talked about it. But it's not a long conversation. There's not much to talk about. We went through this with his brother, so we know the deal.

"At this point, it's not like there's something wrong with Virginia Tech. It's more like, 'What's wrong with that family?' "

Marcus Vick followed in his older brother's footsteps as a starting quarterback for the Hokies, but his stay in Blacksburg was tumultuous. He spent one season suspended after multiple arrests and later was booted from the team after stomping on an opponent on national TV.

"For all the grief Marcus brought upon Virginia Tech, I was always comforted to know that Mike was a different person," said Michael Willis, a season-ticket holder. "But now ..."

In the 18-page indictment, Vick and three associates are accused of creating a dogfighting venture at Vick's Surry County home, gambling on dogfights and mistreating, even executing dogs that did not perform well.

Vick is scheduled to appear in federal court in Richmond on Thursday. If convicted, he could face up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine.

Even before the indictment, Vick's fan base had started to erode in the Tech community, said Will Stewart, who operates TechSideline.com, a message board that averages 9.5 million page views per month.

Vick was sued in 2005 by a woman who said he had infected her with herpes. Last November, he flipped off Falcons fans after a game. And in January, Vick was stopped by airport police for carrying a water bottle with a secret compartment.

"But this has pushed almost every Tech fan over the edge," Stewart said.

Marion Devoe, a 2000 graduate from Centreville, said her emotions have gone from disappointment to disgust, even though Vick has not been convicted of a crime.

"Michael Vick was Virginia Tech's favorite son. But you can only be in denial for so long."

With the rape case involving falsely accused Duke lacrosse players still fresh, some Vick supporters remind others not to jump to conclusions.

"It sounds bad, I know, but we're not going to give up on Michael yet," said Roger Pike, president of the Tidewater Hokie Club. "The Hokies are a family, and just because a family member does something they shouldn't have, you don't just throw them away."

Until last Tuesday, Scott Faison agreed.

The 46-year-old Ashburn resident, who graduated from Tech in 1984, is a season-ticket holder. As a "Platinum Hokie," he gives at least $5,000 a year to the athletic program. He spends an additional $1,500 a year on his six tickets.

His 7-year-old son adores Vick.

"Jacob has three heroes in this world other than Mom and Dad: dogs, Harry Potter and Michael Vick," Faison said. Then he added: "We will be putting his Vick jersey away."

Kyle Tucker writes for The Virginian-Pilot.

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