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October 18, 2010

ROCK SOLID - Rock Carmichael lost his father suddenly more than two years ago, but has honored him by becoming a strong man on and off the field

By: Jimmy Robertson

Rock Carmichael

He often hears that voice, one that no one else hears. It comes across as a tiny whisper that reverberates loudly within his mind.

He remembers the day his father first asked him that question. He came to Virginia Tech as a receiver, fully expecting to be the next Eddie Royal. But Tech’s staff saw something in him that he never saw in himself and shuttled him to cornerback.

He wasn’t sure he liked the position or the lengthy line of those in front of him –guys like Brandon Flowers, Macho Harris and Stephan Virgil. So he called his best friend to tell him.

His dad responds back, “You scared?”

“Nah, nah, I ain’t scared,” he remembers answering back.

The truth is Rashad Carmichael actually wasn’t scared. Never really has been.

He wasn’t scared when Tech’s staff moved him to corner. He wasn’t scared when he constantly chased receivers in practice on a regular basis for two years. He wasn’t scared a few weeks ago when pass-happy East Carolina started driving down the field late in the game, with his team clinging to a lead and trying to avert a disastrous 0-3 start in his final season. And he wasn’t scared when ECU quarterback Dominique Davis confidently looked his way and whistled a football in the direction of Justin Jones, a 6-foot-8 giant of a receiver who stood nearly a foot taller than Carmichael.

Instead, Carmichael channeled his inner David, stepped in front of the intended giant, intercepted the pass and sprinted toward victory, intensely arm-fighting Davis those final 10 yards to the end zone.

Carmichael knows his dad is proud. He knows his dad saw the play. He knows his dad enjoys the best view in the house, as he does every game.

Bernard Carmichael looks down from above. The clock in his own game of life unfortunately expired a couple of years ago.

That’s why Rashad Carmichael – known by everyone as “Rock” – enjoys it when his father’s voice slips into his mind. It keeps him believing that his father never left.

Carmichael remembers the call. It came in the middle of the summer in 2008. His younger brother, Nygee, buzzed him, and Carmichael could hear the fear in his brother’s voice.

“He told me that dad didn’t look good and that he was scared,” Carmichael said. “Right then and there, I knew.”

He actually knew roughly two weeks earlier. His father, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force, resembled most military men. He shunned great displays of emotion.

But on this occasion, he called Rock, who was working out with his teammates in Blacksburg, and begged him to come home for the weekend. Then, he gathered his three sons together and told them that he felt poorly and didn’t know how much longer he had. Rock thought of the conversation as odd and shrugged it off.

Two weeks later, he got a call from his father around 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening.

“He said, ‘I’m doing alright,’” Rock said. “He was always asking about practice. Then he told me, ‘I’ve got to go, but I’ll talk to you later. I love you.’ I told him that I loved him.

Bernard Carmichael provided guidance, discipline, work ethic and much more to his sons, and those traits helped both Nygee (bottom left) and Rock (standing) earn football scholarships to Towson and Virginia Tech, respectively.

“But after I got off the phone, I knew something wasn’t right. That’s not the kind of person he is. I could feel something.”

Then came the call from his brother. And then came the thump on the door.

Bernard Carmichael passed away on July 13 of a heart attack at the youthful age of 40. Mae Carmichael, worried about her oldest son in Blacksburg, called Jason Worilds, a teammate and one of Rock’s closest friends, and told him the news. She wanted him to go to Carmichael’s apartment. She didn’t want her son to be alone.

Worilds told her he would tell Rock the news. So about 10 o’clock that Sunday evening, he went over to Carmichael’s place and gently tapped on the door.

“I looked through the hole and I knew,” Carmichael said. “I didn’t even answer. I left him outside for about 30 minutes. I was just sitting on the floor. Then I opened the door and he [Worilds] told me. It was crazy.”

The loss of his father left him at a loss. He had lost his father, his best friend and his mentor.

He had lost his “Rock.”

“He helped me a lot in everything,” Carmichael said. “He was a dad at times when he needed to do the father stuff, but mostly, he was a big brother to me. He looked on the best side of everything. He taught me to respect my family and do the right thing. That’s the kind of person he was. He made me like that.”

The family buried Bernard Carmichael in a veterans’ cemetery near Fort Meade in Maryland, where he was last stationed and near the family home in Clinton, Md. Several members of Tech’s football team attended, along with team chaplain Johnny Shelton.

An honor guard presented the United States flag to Mae Carmichael. Then they fired a three-volley salute. The Rifle Squad Detail Leader picked up the shell casings.

Rock Carmichael keeps those casings beside his father’s Bible on the nightstand next to his bed.

“You scared?”

Carmichael laughs as he says it. More than two years after his father’s funeral, he fields the question as to why he didn’t leave Virginia Tech and return to Maryland to look out for his family.

“I can hear him saying now, ‘Are you scared? Are you scared?’” Carmichael said. “I never thought about leaving. My mom wouldn’t let me leave, and I knew that’s not what he would have wanted anyway.”

“It wasn’t an option,” Mae Carmichael said. “He felt like he needed to be there for us, but he knew he needed to go back to school. I’m sure he was frustrated and overwhelmed, but he needed to go back.”

If for nothing else, he needed to fulfill his father’s wishes. After all, Bernard Carmichael is the man who launched Rock toward a career in football at a young age.

There were the legendary workouts – ones that involved predawn running and sit-ups and push-ups. On occasion, he took his sons to a local park and had them run around the lake.

The toughest, though, came when he broke out the inner tube, tire and rope, with the inner tube serving as a vest. He attached the rope to the tire, and Rock and his brother took turns dragging that tire around. They even took that tire with them on vacations to visit Carmichael’s grandmother in South Carolina.

It was she who gave him his nickname when he was practically a little tyke. She kept the boys when Bernard Carmichael was stationed overseas, and she shortened Rashad to “Ra” and then “Ra Ra.”

“Nah, you ain’t going to be called ‘Ra Ra,’” Bernard said upon his return.

Grandma then said, “Rock” and that stuck. That also pleased Bernard Carmichael.

After all, they were his soldiers – and they loved it. That tire ultimately became the Carmichael family version of Tech’s lunch pail.

“It was always fun. We always wanted to do it,” Carmichael said of the workouts. “He’d say, ‘I ain’t making you do this. If you want to come out here, then come on out.’ We’d always go out and go to work. It paid off, too.”

The work paid off in the form of a scholarship. While scouting one of Carmichael’s high school teammates, Tech’s staff got a close look at Carmichael during a one-day camp in Blacksburg and head coach Frank Beamer offered him a scholarship.

Carmichael had no other options – not one. No other school showed any interest.

“I don’t know what I would have done [without the offer],” Carmichael said. “I can’t tell you. All my eggs were in one basket. I got a shot and ran with it.”

He actually stumbled at first, especially after the staff moved him to cornerback. He had played very little cornerback in high school. As a result, he took a repetitive beating from Royal, Josh Morgan and Justin Harper, all of whom now play in the NFL.

But if Bernard Carmichael taught his son anything, it was not to be afraid of work. Rock immersed himself in film study, and he tethered himself to Flowers and Harris during practices and meetings.

And he could hear his dad motivating him.

“You scared?”

On the contrary, his opponents now fear him. A year ago, he turned out to be Tech’s most improved player, leading the team with six interceptions and adding in 55 tackles. People took notice, too. He earned honorable mention All-ACC honors.

“Hard work and watching film and being prepared,” Carmichael clicked off as the reasons for his success. “I was prepared for my chance, and once I got going, I felt like I was at home.”

The Virginia Tech hat sits next to the Bible as well..

It’s a simple display with a complex meaning. These things help keep Bernard Carmichael close by.

His father loved that hat. So Rock keeps the hat, the casings and the Bible within his grasp. For him, they prevent the necessity of going back to a cold cemetery for a visit. Instead for Rock, Bernard Carmichael is buried next to him deeply inside his heart.

“I don’t like going back to see him,” Rock said.

“It’s like saying good-bye all over again. We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Mae Carmichael admitted. “It’s painful.”

Instead, Rock prefers to listen, hearing his father’s voice at just the perfect time. It provokes a smile, even the silliest of conversations.

“He used to say that, ‘Man, as soon as you get on the field, I’m going to get a big maroon RV,’” Carmichael said, smiling and shaking his head. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to come to every game. I’m not going in, though. I’m going to watch it outside in my RV and listen to the crowd. That’s all I want to do.’ I can still hear him saying that.”

Carmichael insists his father was at Lane Stadium in May, when he graduated with a degree in human development. His mom and aunts and uncles also poured into Blacksburg for the big day. Not surprisingly, a tight family grew tighter when Bernard Carmichael passed away more than two years ago.

These days, Carmichael’s focus is simply family and football. His return for a touchdown against East Carolina marked the second score of his career. Moments later, he intercepted another pass, the eighth of his career.

His dad approved.

“It’s weird, but I can feel him,” Carmichael said. “That stuff is real. You can feel it on your heart. I can’t really explain it.”

He calls his mom three or four times a day, checking on her and asking, if nothing else, what she’s having for lunch. Mae Carmichael appreciates the loving efforts of her oldest son.

“I told him that he didn’t need to do that,” she said. “I told him to let me worry about things here.

“He said, ‘That’s not how it works, Mom. You let me do the worrying.’”

Rock also keeps close tabs on Nygee at Towson. He makes sure that 12-year-old Shaikh has his grades straight.

He wasn’t ready to assume these roles. Instead, they chose him.

He’s the man of the house now. He’s the brother, the friend, the leader and the disciplinarian.

He is the Rock.

Somehow, you get the feeling that his dad won’t let him forget that. After all, he’s only a whisper away.