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December 16, 2011

Michael Vick's play and success put Tech on the national map

By: Jimmy Robertson

This is the fifth in a series of stories that look back at head coach Frank Beamer’s 25 years as the head man of Tech’s football program. We continue with a look at arguably the best player to play under Beamer – a young man named Michael Vick, who led Tech to a perfect regular season in 1999 and to the cusp of a national championship.

It was a dreary night in Chestnut Hill, Mass., as a torrential downpour soaked everything and everyone at Alumni Stadium, the home of Boston College’s football team.

Michael Vick

Frank Beamer wasn’t in the best of moods. His Hokies were getting ready to take on the Eagles in front of the nation watching through ESPN’s Thursday night cameras, but his top two quarterbacks were out. Al Clark (foot) and Dave Meyer (shoulder) left the offense in the hands of Nick Sorensen, who, three weeks earlier, was a free safety.

In the second half, Beamer’s mood turned even worse. Tech clung to a 7-0 lead, and Sorensen followed three first-half fumbles with an interception on the Hokies’ first drive of the second half.

It was enough to make even the normally patient Beamer want to pull the redshirt off of a particular quarterback – a young man named Michael Vick, who was just three months removed from his 18th birthday.

“I looked behind me one time [during the game], and there was Michael,” Beamer said. “It was hard not to think about putting him in, but I had made a promise to Tommy Reamon, his high school coach, that we’d redshirt him, and I wasn’t going to break my word.”

That promise was one of many reasons Vick decided to sign with Tech in the winter of 1998. His signature on signing day ended an interesting recruitment that began when Beamer saw film of him three years earlier and when lead recruiter Jim Cavanaugh was actually an assistant at North Carolina.

At the time, there were two great quarterbacks in the Hampton Roads area – Vick and Hampton High standout Ronald Curry – and neither wanted to go to the same school. Beamer and his staff watched plenty of film of both quarterbacks, but Beamer really liked what he saw from Vick.

“We’re going to go with this one,” he remembered thinking after watching the film of Vick.

Cavanaugh first saw Vick in the fall of 1994. While at North Carolina, he traveled to Ferguson High School in Newport News to check out a defensive end. Vick, then a freshman, played at Ferguson High for Reamon, and Cavanaugh noticed Vick while watching film of the defensive end in Reamon’s office.

“I saw this lefty kid running around and throwing it and making plays,” Cavanaugh said. “He didn’t start, but he came in during the second half of the game I was watching. I told Tommy, ‘You need to be playing this kid.’ Tommy told me, ‘Coach, he’s starting tonight. I’ve moved the other kid to receiver.’ For a freshman quarterback, he was something special.”

Interestingly, Cavanaugh, Reamon and Vick all moved shortly thereafter. The city of Newport News closed Ferguson High, so Reamon and Vick ended up at Warwick High at the beginning of Vick’s junior year. Cavanaugh landed with Beamer at Tech in early 1996, but kept up the relationship with Vick and Reamon.

“I did everything the NCAA allowed, and Michael was always very respectful to me,” Cavanaugh said. “I’d call him between 7:15-7:30 every Tuesday night, and he’d always be there. After I called him, I called Tommy to let him know. I always kept Tommy informed.”

Vick really respected Cavanaugh and the attention he received, but he came away equally impressed when Beamer visited the family’s home in a rather rough section of Newport News.

“He came to my house in a poverty-stricken area of Newport News, and that surprised me,” Vick said in a phone interview from Philadelphia. “He really seemed comfortable in that environment. That shocked me and my mom that he would take the time and show the commitment to me. To me, I thought that was the greatest thing.”

Vick signed with Tech in February of 1998, choosing the Hokies over Syracuse and East Carolina. He said he picked Tech because the Hokies were a program on the rise and with a great tradition. He also cited the program as having room for him to grow, and he enjoyed the people at Tech.

“I felt like it was a place where I had to go,” he said.

Vick came in, and Tech’s staff stayed true to its word, redshirting Vick that first year. Reamon wanted Vick to redshirt because he felt the young man needed to learn first before playing. Clark returned as the starting quarterback anyway, so it made sense for Tech’s staff to bring Vick along slowly.

“I wasn’t ready to play,” Vick said. “I knew the offense, but it’s a matter of knowing the offense and knowing what defenses are doing. I knew Coach was going to protect me.”

Vick easily won the starting job the following spring, and Tech fans know the rest of the story. As a redshirt freshman, he became the first freshman in NCAA history to lead the nation in passing efficiency, and he set then-single-season records in completion percentage, yards per play, passing yards per completion and passing yards per attempt. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Georgia Tech’s Joe Hamilton.

More importantly, he guided the Hokies to a perfect regular season and to a spot in the national championship game against Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Despite a dazzling display – Vick amassed 322 yards of total offense – the Hokies fell 46-29 to FSU.

“I think about that game all the time,” Vick said. “I wish we had won it.”

“I thought he was going to be good,” Beamer said. “But I didn’t know he was going to be that good. He was a special talent … he had fantastic instincts and great ability.

“I think he took our program up another notch. People wanted to be like Michael Vick. He was just an unbelievable player, and all of the sudden, you’ve got people saying ‘Michael Vick’ and ‘Virginia Tech’ in the same breath. So I think he took our program up another notch, maybe a couple of notches. When you started watching him, you didn’t turn the TV off.”

In 2000, Vick guided Tech to another 11-win season. The only game the Hokies lost that year was a 41-21 decision at Miami in which Vick couldn’t go because of an injury. Tech closed out the season with a 41-20 victory over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

That turned out to be Vick’s last college game. At a press conference before the bowl game, Vick announced that he planned on returning for his redshirt junior season. But after the bowl game, he decided to forgo his final two years at Tech and enter the NFL Draft, and he became the No. 1 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001.

His about-face left Tech without a proven quarterback for the 2001 season. But Beamer didn’t begrudge Vick on his decision.

“When you get in that position, it’s understandable that you need to come on out,” Beamer said.

Vick has enjoyed considerable success as an NFL quarterback, having made the Pro Bowl four times, and he’s the all-time leader for rushing yards by an NFL quarterback. But he’s also gotten into trouble, having missed two seasons while serving time for dogfighting crimes.

Still, Beamer has stuck by Vick, as he has done for nearly all of his players over the course of 25 years. Vick came back to Blacksburg in 2010 for the first time since leaving, and Beamer told Vick, “You’ve got a story to tell. You had a lot and lost a lot and now you’re trying to do the right thing. The message to kids is that you’re responsible for your actions and decisions, so make good ones. Those kids will listen.”

Vick, to his credit, has turned his life around, and he credits Beamer for believing in him, both while in college and afterward.

“He changed my life tremendously,” Vick said. “He believed in a young kid from Newport News and gave me control of his program when I was 18 years old. That says a lot about his belief in me.

“When I came back, it was great to see him. It was a chance to talk, and we were able to communicate a lot better than when I was there playing. I was a young kid then. I thought I knew everything. Now I realize the significance of the things he was telling me back then. I understand now.”