Goodbye Michael, We Hardly Knew You

Michael Vick
Michael Vick impressed the Hokie Nation in his college debut and soon took the nation by storm (Virginia Tech Athletics Photography)

Go back to September 4th, 1999, about 1 pm in the afternoon. Michael Vick was about to start his first college football game against James Madison, and he was a nobody.

Oh, sure, those of us who follow Hokie football knew who he was, but no one else did. One year earlier, as Hokie QB’s limped and gimped their way through an almost-but-not-quite 1998 season, the cry from the Hokie faithful for Beamer to remove the redshirt from the promising Vick and put him on the field had been strong.

And as that season expired and Vick’s first year on the field approached, Frank Beamer had been coyly hinting for months that Vick was something special. But in that early September day of 1999, to the world at large, Michael Vick was nobody, and Virginia Tech football was nowhere.

And then he did that flip thing against JMU. That got him some press. And then he tore through UVa, Rutgers, and others like a chain saw through butter. And then he motored up the sideline against West Virginia and saved the Hokies’ season in a play for the ages. More than a few people noticed that.

And then, on January 4th, 2000, under the bright lights of the New Orleans Superdome, with 52 million people watching on TV, Michael Vick went thermonuclear. When he went, he took the Virginia Tech football program with him. And things will never be the same.

But back to that day in September, 1999. It seems like ages ago, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. It was barely sixteen months ago.

The last sixteen months have been a wild ride, and Vick has been the Virginia Tech poster boy almost the entire time, receiving all of the attention, adoration, flak, and hype. He has been the sole image of Virginia Tech football for those who never knew it, and his imprint, even after he departs, will reach far and wide.

Is he ready for the NFL? No. But that doesn’t matter. The NFL, namely the San Diego Chargers, are apparently willing to make Vick the #1 pick and pay him tens of millions of dollars, so what does “ready” matter? “Ready” is for potential second and third rounders who can perhaps move themselves up to the first round with one more good year of college ball. The only “ready” the #1 pick can possibly be is “ready to fall off the edge of a cliff and lose millions of dollars.”

There’s no way to go from here but down, so Vick is doing the pragmatic thing and cashing in his chips now, while they’re maximized. No one can fault him for that.

Do Hokie fans want to hear that? No. They want Vick back next year, still running the point on a Hokie team that has a legitimate shot (inexperienced offensive line notwithstanding) at a national championship.

But while you try to figure out what you think of Vick’s decision, and what the Hokie football team is going to do without him, consider this: I don’t think he wanted to go.

I think Michael Vick likes college. I think he likes Virginia Tech. I think he wanted to win the Heisman and a national championship. I think he wanted at least one more year of college football in Lane Stadium, where he is loved and adored and will never be booed.

I think his heart wanted to stay in Blacksburg. But to his head, it just didn’t make sense. I really think he feels that way, because that’s the way I feel about it, and I think most of you do, too. Your hearts want him to stay, but your heads can’t question the logic of his decision to leave.

The Glare — and the Price — of the Bright Lights of Stardom

Vick is such a huge mega-star that my feeble brain still can’t get a grasp on him and probably never will. He is a Hokie, as he reminded us in his press conference on Thursday, January 11th, but he transcends the university more than any other Hokie athlete that came before him.

Some special athletes have come through Virginia Tech and have gone on to long, successful careers in their respective professional sports — Bimbo Coles, Dell Curry, Bruce Smith, and Antonio Freeman, to name a few — but Vick is a level above them all, above even Bruce Smith, in the amount of hype that he generated while he was still here at Virginia Tech.

Tech fans love their Hokie athletes and always consider them to be part of the Virginia Tech family, but Vick is one Hokie that we never got to enjoy on our own, in our own little world, before the outside world of hype, money, and the lure of professional sports came and took him away. Dell, Bimbo, Bruce, Druck — those guys were all “one of us,” and we had time to enjoy them, before they were whisked away. Not so with Vick.

I remember standing in PK’s in the spring of 1996, just a scant few months after the Hokies had won the 1995 Sugar Bowl over Texas, 28-10. I watched Jim Druckenmiller play a video game with a few of his friends. They had a good time, and people left them alone. Druck was a big star in VT terms back then, but people watched him from a distance, and no one asked him for an autograph or hassled him while he was trying to have fun with his friends.

It was never that way with Vick. Looking back, it seems that Vick was always a commodity, always a property, always the center of his own hyped-up universe that never stopped. It’s not his fault. It’s just that everyone wanted a piece of him, from the little kid who wanted his autograph to the money-grubbing opportunist who wanted him to sign something so he could turn around and sell it on Ebay.

That’s why I look upon his career with a lot of sadness. Vick had barely hit the ground running before he was being bought and sold six million ways from Sunday. In one respect, I certainly don’t blame the kid for making the jump to the NFL. He has made millions of dollars for others in the last 16 months, so why not make some for himself now? Sorry to sound like a cliché, but it’s true in Vick’s case more so than any other Tech athlete I’ve ever seen.

The point is, Michael Vick has been run ragged ever since January 4th, 2000. From what I can tell, the VT SID never met an interview request for Vick that they didn’t like, even going so far as to let interview him last August on his cell phone while he was driving to practice one day. And yet as Vick went from one interview or photo shoot to the next, compromising his ability to concentrate on schoolwork or even running the Tech offense, and as he generated millions of dollars in revenue, none of that moolah he made ever went back into his own pocket — until now.

So go for it, Michael, make some of it for yourself now. Sorry to sound like such a cynic, but the media circus — heck, the circus in general — around Vick the last year has gotten out of hand. Had Michael decided to stay, he would have been hounded relentlessly next year about the question of whether or not he was going to go pro. And it was all starting to get tiresome, so I can’t imagine what it was like to Vick. Please excuse me for being naïve, having never had the opportunity to watch a star being born like this.

Michael can always come back later and get the degree, which I wholeheartedly encourage him to do. There is a special sense of accomplishment about having a college degree that all the fancy cars, clothes and houses in the world can never replace.

Men of Their Words?

I suspect something that is bothering a lot of Hokie fans right now is the feeling that they can no longer take anyone at their word. First Frank Beamer flirted heavily with North Carolina, two years after stating unequivocally that Virginia Tech would be his last college coaching job, and now Michael Vick, who said not once but twice (in October and again on December 15th) that he was returning next year to Tech, has changed his mind.

We as Hokie followers, fans, and faithful have now reached the point where emphatic statements such as “This is the last place you’ll hear my name mentioned with a college job” (Beamer, 12/2/1998) and “I just wanted to make sure everyone knew that this was definite, that I am coming back for another season” (Vick, 12/15/2000) can no longer be taken as truth, even if the speakers were sincere at the time. This is the unpleasant side of being a “player” in the big-money college football world, and although most level-headed Hokie fans understand that, they don’t like it.

You Can Have Your Team Back Now

On the bright side, the Hokie fans, players and coaches left behind can now have their football team back. The bright lights of the Heisman hoopla will now focus elsewhere, and the national media will now look somewhere else for the next Michael Jordan … or the next Michael Vick. Blacksburg will get a lot quieter again.

The Hokie players and coaches can set about the task of proving that Virginia Tech football can be a successful BCS Bowl program without Michael Vick (something we thought they had already proven in the Druckenmiller days). I would imagine that Lee Suggs, Frank Beamer, Carter Warley, and any other name that you can pick out of a hat are all relishing the challenge that has been laid before them.

Hokie fans should appreciate the challenge, as well. Now they can prove that their support does not hinge upon the presence of one particular player, but instead is support of the program as a whole. The Hokie football team, and the Lane Stadium expansion that looms, are counting on you.

Not to mention that the Tech SID no longer has to answer that sticky question of whether they should promote Vick or Lee Suggs for the Heisman next year. Now they can just stick to Suggs.

As I am fond of saying, only time and distance will enable us to fully comprehend what we just witnessed over the last sixteen months. But I know one thing: I’m excited about the future. For those outside the program and in the national media, the bar of expectations will be lowered now for Virginia Tech football, and that’s just the way Hokies like it. Because when nothing is expected of the Virginia Tech Hokies, that’s when they have a habit of really excelling.

Just watch in the coming years as Tech’s Big East foes and the UVa Cavaliers twist in rage when a Vick-less Hokie team beats them anyway. The expressions on their faces as the Hokies prove they’re not a one-hit wonder will be priceless.

So good luck to you, Michael Vick. Enjoy your contract and your time in the NFL, and may you have a long and successful career. Virginia Tech football is better off for your influence, but it will also prosper after you’re gone. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want it any other way.

And don’t forget, naming rights for the West Side expansion of Lane Stadium are only $25 million. How does “Lane Stadium/Worsham Field at the Vick Athletic Complex” sound?