Search

A Cut Above The Rest

Aug. 14, 2000
Aug. 14, 2000

Table of Contents
Aug. 14, 2000

College Football Preview 2000
Photo Credits: Gene Dalton/AP

A Cut Above The Rest

Blessed with talents rarely seen in a quarterback, Virginia Tech's Michael Vick is a physical marvel without a typical superstar's ego

The kid is so good he makes his mother cry. She cries in her van
on the way to the store. She cries behind the wheel of the school
bus she drives for a living. She cries at home watching his games
on TV. She cries in the stadium watching him play in person.

This is an article from the Aug. 14, 2000 issue

"Dear Lord, I just want to thank you," she says whenever the
tears start to fall. "Yes, Lord, thank you. Thank you, Lord."

She prays because in her mind God has created something unique in
a world too ordinary, and that is her son, Michael Vick, the
All-America quarterback for Virginia Tech, and maybe, if you
believe what football people are saying, the most exciting player
at his position the college game has ever seen. "Michael makes me
happy, that's why I cry," says Brenda Boddie, 37, as yet another
sob seems on the verge of being unleashed. "I hate to brag, but
everything he does is so positive and just so good. I'm shocked
myself, watching him run and throw that ball. Every day I thank
God for the blessings He's given my son."

Poor God. Imagine all the Saturday afternoons in the fall and
all the prayers from football mothers pleading for victory.
Surely they all want to win, moms with sons on both sides of the
ball. The game winds down; the score hangs in the balance. "Dear
Lord," comes the inevitable chorus, "please let it be us." Then
comes that one small voice from Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, in
southwest Virginia, home of the Hokies. ("Where do they come up
with these names?" God must wonder.) The voice is most
persuasive for the weight of its sincerity. While others beg for
a particular result, this one is filled only with gratitude. No
demands, no requests. "Dear Lord, I just want to thank you," the
voice says, as Vick takes the snap and drops back, looking for
an open receiver. "Yes, Lord, thank you. Thank you, Lord."

Put yourself in God's place: Which team would you have win?

Last season, as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, Vick led the
Hokies to an undefeated regular season and into the national
championship game, the Nokia Sugar Bowl, against Florida State.
Despite a performance that left the Seminoles awestruck ("He was
unbelievable," said Florida State linebacker Brian Allen), Vick
couldn't beat the Seminoles single-handedly, and Virginia Tech
lost to a superior team 46–29. Florida State receiver Peter
Warrick was named the game's MVP, but that night Vick, a
refreshingly modest, soft-spoken kid from Newport News, Va.,
took his place in the consciousness of a nation obsessed with
underdog heroes.

Against the country's best defense Vick accounted for 323 of his
team's 503 yards of total offense. He threw for 225 yards,
completing 15 of 29 passes, one for a touchdown, and he ran for
145 yards on 23 carries, although eight sacks wiped another 48
yards from his rushing total. However impressive, what these
numbers fail to reveal is the dazzling manner in which Vick
carried the Hokies. Whether uncorking deep spirals or mesmerizing
would-be tacklers as he dodged a powerful rush, Vick showed the
kind of pure magic that in a few hours creates a legend. A
third-place finisher for the Heisman Trophy, tying Georgia Tech's
Clint Castleberry (1942) and Georgia's Herschel Walker (1980) for
the highest finish by a freshman, Vick's performance in New
Orleans announced him as the front-runner for the award this
year.

"We can't believe him around here sometimes," says Virginia Tech
senior safety Nick Sorensen. "He has strength, quickness, speed
and the strongest arm you'll ever see. What the kid doesn't have,
I don't know. It's all so effortless for him. Go watch a tape of
one of our games, and watch him on a long run. Put it in slow
motion. The guy's not running; he's floating. Michael Vick is
just a sick athlete. It's crazy."

At 6'1", 214 pounds, Vick is what coaches once liked to call a
"specimen," although these days the term of choice seems to be
"freak," as in freak of nature. He's a freak because he's so
gifted he makes you forget the great players who have starred at
his position. He's such a freak that in June a major league
baseball team, the Colorado Rockies, picked him in the 30th round
of the amateur draft, even though Vick, now 20, hasn't played the
game since he was 14. "I talked to a guy with the Rockies and I
was like, 'Man, what made you decide to draft me?'" says Vick,
who plans to forgo the baseball opportunity. "He said, 'You have
a great arm and we think you can pitch. But we also think you can
play centerfield.' I wasn't sure whether to tell him that I
couldn't hit for anything."

But who in baseball should care about anything as fundamental as
hitting when a player can run and throw as well as Vick can? Vick
says he's never tested his arm for distance, but in practice he's
thrown a football 70 yards without any trouble. In games he's
hurled passes as deep as 80 yards. That's with a few steps to get
some momentum behind the ball, right? "No, that's just stepping
and throwing it," Vick says.

"He threw one pass against us from his own 45 to the back of our
end zone, and it was a strike," says Tony Berry, a cornerback for
Rutgers. "That was in the first half, when he threw four
touchdown passes and ran for a fifth score. If I remember right,
Vick's first pass of the game came on the first play, and it went
80 yards for a touchdown. When something like that happens to a
defense, to be honest, it's frightening. You step back and try to
reevaluate. But what is there to reevaluate? The guy is why
someone like me plays the game—to play against the best."

In spring practice Vick ran the 40 in 4.25 seconds, even faster
than the 4.33 he put up a year ago, and faster than everyone
else on the Virginia Tech roster. Vick bench-presses 340 pounds,
jerks 310 and squats 515. His vertical leap is 40 1/2", half a
foot better than the team record he set when he reported to
Blacksburg in August 1998. "We were lifting the other day, doing
these overhead dumbbell pulls, and it was like there were bricks
coming out of his armpits," says Dave Meyer, Vick's backup at
quarterback. "The guy has muscles coming out of his ears. When
you see him without a shirt on and see his back....I can tell
you, there aren't many people in this world with a back like
that. I'll let you in on a secret: He doesn't eat very well. I
try to eat my chicken breast and vegetables. But Mike can throw
any kind of junk food in his body, and it turns out good. He can
live on Coke and candy, and he's still a machine."

Had he not become the country's best quarterback heading into
the 2000 season, Vick might've been its best I-back. In a
different era--before Jamelle Holieway, Charlie Ward and Donovan
McNabb, black athletes all, distinguished themselves at a
position once reserved for whites--becoming a running back
likely would have been Vick's destiny. Sports analysts, forever
looking for comparables, struggle when trying to place Vick in a
historical context. They don't know if he better resembles Steve
Young with Tony Dorsett's running ability or Barry Sanders with
Dan Marino's throwing arm. Or, and this is the question that has
come up time and again since his performance in the Sugar Bowl,
is Vick a new kind of quarterback, the next step in football's
evolutionary ladder, an athlete who single-handedly reinvents
how his position is played?

"He's different, isn't he?" says Virginia Tech coach Frank
Beamer, with a proprietary chuckle. "But I have to tell you
something—that's not what's most impressive about him. With
Michael, the thing you see in him the first time you meet him is
the same thing you see in him every time thereafter. He's kind
and polite, he speaks well, and he's a good person. It's been my
experience that with some people who are talented athletes, you
admire what they do athletically, but you don't want to hang
around them very long. In Michael's case the opposite is true.
You want to be with him all the time. All the players, the
coaches. We can't get enough of him."

Neither, so it seems, can Hokies fans. In Blacksburg, Vick can't
go to Wal-Mart without being mobbed. He gladly signs autographs,
although for kicks he's been known to feign confusion when
admirers ask if he's who they think he is. "Ah, no," he says,
pointing to whichever teammate happens to be handy. "He's Michael
Vick. But thanks."

The school has produced great NFL players—defensive lineman
Bruce Smith was a two-time All-America and the first player
taken in the 1985 draft, and wide receiver Carroll Dale,
quarterback Don Strock and wideout Antonio Freeman also played
for Virginia Tech--but never has Blacksburg experienced
celebrity of Vick's magnitude. At this year's spring game 20,000
spectators watched Vick and the Hokies, nearly triple the
average attendance of the past few years.

"Wherever I go," says senior guard Matt Lehr, "people say,
'What's he like? Is he cocky? Is he a big airhead?' Considering
all the attention he gets, the guy could be a problem. But Mike
doesn't seem affected by it at all. He's still just one of the
guys in the locker room. He's still quiet, considerate of others,
a gentleman. Truth is, Michael Vick is almost too good to be
true."

Vick's only flaw, if you listen to his coaches and teammates, is
his soft voice, which can get lost in the crowd noise during
games. In the huddle players exhort him to speak up, and at the
line of scrimmage it's not always easy to hear him, especially
when he's calling an audible.

In high school, Vick explains, the last thing a quarterback had
to worry about was having his voice drowned out by crowd noise.
His team at Warwick High wasn't that good (20-13 during his 3 1/3
seasons as a starter there), and except for the annual game with
rival Hampton High, there were rarely many spectators on hand.
"In college I learned pretty fast that you can't be a leader on
the field and do a baby count," says Vick. "At first I was just
calling signals in my regular voice—you know, like you and I are
talking. But everybody's saying, 'I can't hear you,' and the
coaches are screaming. Believe me, I shout it out now; I let it
go."

Asked if there were other aspects of the game that Vick could
improve on, junior fullback Jarrett Ferguson thought for a moment
and replied, "Well, he's so spontaneous you never know where he's
going to go. That can make it hard to block for him. One second
you think he's behind you, but he's already reversed his field.
You look left and he's gone right. I wouldn't describe this as a
weakness, though. What other quarterback can do what he does?"

Two years ago, when Vick first reported as a freshman, he was so
overwhelmed by the complexity of Virginia Tech's multiple-set
offense and its demands on the quarterback that he considered
asking to be moved to another position. "I'm going to tell coach
I want to play receiver," he confided to fellow quarterback Meyer
during preseason practice. "This is too much. I can't take it all
in."

"He'd come out to practice, and his eyes would be big and wild
and full of stars," says Meyer. "He was just awed by everything.
Michael didn't even recognize how good he was. He didn't
understand that he had the tools to do whatever he wanted."

"Ain't no way I can learn all this," Vick would mumble to himself
in practice.

Rickey Bustle, the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks
coach, pulled Vick aside one day and told him to settle down.
"You're a freshman," Vick recalls Bustle saying. "You're 18 years
old, and you just got here. Why do you expect to do so much?"

It was a question Vick couldn't easily answer. At Warwick High,
Vick had been one of the state's top recruits, coveted by major
college programs nationwide. But he played in the same district
and at the same position as Hampton's Ronald Curry, who in
1997-98 was the most heralded schoolboy athlete in the country.
Vick so admired the way Curry played that he mimicked some of his
moves, and once, when Curry got hurt, Vick's family sent him a
get-well card. "I lived in his shadow," says Vick. "At the end of
my senior year I ended up second-team everything. The papers
would have a huge picture of Ronald Curry, with poor little Mike
Vick down in the corner about the size of a stamp. I never held
it against Curry—just the opposite, I was happy for him. But
being second was something I had to deal with, and deal with a
lot."

Curry, also a basketball phenom, signed with North Carolina and
two games into the 1998 season became the starting quarterback as
a freshman after the returning starter was injured; Vick was
r edshirted before the season so that he would have time to learn
the Hokies' offense and become proficient at running it. Last
year Curry played in five games before rupturing his right
Achilles tendon against Georgia Tech and missing the rest of the
season. But even before the injury, Vick had been outperforming
Curry, who had been averaging two interceptions a game on a 1–4
team.

"Ronald Curry was thrown to the wolves," says Tommy Reamon, who
coached Vick at Warwick High, "while Michael Vick was groomed the
right way. These were two great high school athletes who came
from different programs with different support casts. Curry
played in a highly successful program, Vick in an average one.
But a critical decision was made concerning Vick's future, and
that was to redshirt. No high school kid today can walk into a
major college football setting and perform without difficulty. No
matter how good he is—and Curry is [a perfect] example—he needs
time to adjust, to grow and to expand his talents."

Before Vick arrived at Warwick, Reamon, 47, had coached Aaron
Brooks, who went on to play quarterback at Virginia and now is a
reserve with the Green Bay Packers. "Michael wanted to follow in
Aaron's footsteps," says Reamon. "He was a ninth grader the
first time I saw him, and I watched him zip the ball with that
quick release, and I said, 'Wow.' The next thing I said was,
'O.K., I know what to do with this.'"

Reamon enrolled Vick in summer football camps and offered private
instruction that took his young pupil through countless passing
and running drills. He had Vick throw an average of 100 passes a
day, and he introduced him to weight training. Warwick High had a
weak offensive line, and Reamon wanted to toughen Vick's body so
that he could survive a beating. He also worked with Vick on
scrambling from the pocket, and he encouraged the improvisation
that is a hallmark of Vick's game today. Reamon also instructed
Vick on how a quarterback should comport himself off the field.
"You must learn to read, write and talk," lectured Reamon. "As a
quarterback in America you must know how to communicate."

In response Vick would stand before a mirror at home and engage
his own image in conversation. As the relationship between Vick
and his coach deepened, Reamon began referring to the player as
"my son," even though the coach was a single parent with a
10-year-old son of his own, and Vick's father, Michael Boddie,
who married Vick's mother nine years after Michael was born, was
not altogether absent from the familial scene. "When I was
growing up, my father was more like my uncle," says Vick, who by
choice retains his mother's maiden name. "We'd talk now and then,
but not enough. He works [as a painter] in the shipyards, and he
wasn't always around, though he did move back home when I left
for college. It's better between us now, much better. One thing
about my father, he always sent us money to make it, even though
he never paid that much attention to me."

Aware that he had a unique talent in Vick, the protective Reamon
advised college coaches that they could not recruit his
quarterback if they also intended to recruit Curry. "Our strategy
all along was, 'Make a decision: Vick or Curry?'" says Reamon.

Vick took official visits to East Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia
Tech. He flirted with the Orangemen, who have a reputation for
developing quarterbacks, before deciding that upstate New York,
in addition to being too cold a climate, was too far from home.
(Blacksburg is less than 220 miles from Newport News.) He wanted
his mother and his siblings (Christine Vick, 21, Marcus Vick, 16,
and Courtney Boddie, 9) to see him play, and he wanted to remain
true to the state of Virginia. "The things you saw Michael do in
the Sugar Bowl," says Beamer, "he was doing those same things in
high school. We knew he was a great talent, and now it seems
everyone in the country knows it too. Since the end of the season
I've done a lot of traveling, and on every trip someone asks me
about him. Someone conducted a poll that said 86 percent of the
people who watched the Sugar Bowl on TV were pulling for Virginia
Tech. A lot of that has to do with the young man we had at
quarterback."

This summer Vick has spent most of his time in Blacksburg,
working out and preparing for the upcoming season. A sociology
major, he isn't taking any classes, choosing instead to focus on
football. The school's sports information department has been
deluged with interview requests from reporters wishing to further
raise his already high profile. Vick's life, on the whole,
remains carefree and uncomplicated: He likes to fish, play with
his one-year-old pit bull, Champagne, and compete with friends in
marathon video-game tournaments. He calls his mother every day.

Not long after the Sugar Bowl, Boddie bought a personalized
license plate that reads VT MOM 7. The plate inspires horn blasts
and shouts of recognition that were not entirely unanticipated.
Boddie drives a 1997 Dodge Caravan, but her dream car is a Lexus.
She professes to be content with the van, just as she is at peace
with the housing development in "deep downtown" Newport News,
where she lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and
Michael's siblings. Does she allow for fantasies of a more
privileged life? "Sometimes [Michael] says, 'Just hold on; I'll
have everything you want,'" says Boddie.

This brings up another question: If Vick plays as well as he did
last year, will he surrender his last two years of college
eligibility and declare for the NFL draft after the 2000 season?
"Maybe so," says Vick with a smile. "I've talked to Coach Bustle
about it, and let me be honest about this: If somebody makes me
that kind of offer [as a top 10 pick], I'd have to go. But I'm
not focused on pro ball or winning the Heisman. I never think
about either of those things, except when somebody brings them
up. Right now the important thing is to get out there and play
well again for Virginia Tech."

"As a rule NFL scouts don't talk to us about underclassmen," says
strength coach Mike Gentry. "But we see them observing. How can
they not love what they see in Michael? It's a given around here
that if he has another big year, he's going pro. But I don't
think you'll find any ill feeling about it."

"People ask me all the time, 'What is Vick going to do?'" says
Sorensen, the safety. "They can't be stupid. I look at them and
laugh. 'What is Mike going to do?' I say. 'I don't know. But
think about it a minute: He's already the best player in college
football. He'll make millions as a pro. What would you do?'"

In the meantime, as college football awaits another season with
Michael Vick, Brenda Boddie can't help but cry at the thought of
a son who brings such joy to so many people, herself included.
In all the world nothing is quite so powerful as a mother's
love. "Not to brag or anything," says Boddie, clearly doing her
best to remain objective, "but if it doesn't work out with
football, Michael can always be a model. I know he's my son, and
I love him, but he really is that good-looking."