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ESPN The Magazine

The boy knows how to make an entrance. You don't even have to know his name; that he can fire a ball 65 yards flat-footed with a flick of his wrist; or that he can blur through 40 yards in 4.25 seconds. All you have to do is look at the tape, watch as he runs circles around Florida State's defense and you know it: He owns the moment. Just like he owns Blacksburg. The "VT" on his helmet might as well stand for Vick's Team.

He took control on Dec. 28, 1998 -- nine months before taking his first snap. He was coronated on a dank high school basketball court in Memphis on the eve of the Music City Bowl. The team was doing a walk-through, and a few Hokies were razzing the scout team quarterback, wondering whether he could handle the spotlight. Michael Vick responded by flashing a mischievous smile, grabbing a football in his left hand, then walking to the far end of the floor, where he unleashed a full-court dart ... WHUUUMP-P-P! Nothing but net.

"Most amazing thing I've ever seen," says cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. "Threw it so hard it hung the net."

Vick then went to halfcourt and fired one righthanded. WHUUUMP-P-P! Same result.

The laws of physics don't leave much room for error when you're staring at an 18-inch target that's parallel to the floor, 47 feet away and 10 feet in the air. But when it comes to this kid, the laws of physics don't seem to apply. A 6'1", 212-pound phenomenon, he came out of nowhere last season to match the best-ever finish by a freshman (third) in the Heisman balloting. Along the way, he transformed Virginia Tech into a national powerhouse and rescued Big East football from the brink of death. But all that seems easy now. This season, he's got a bigger challenge: Try not to go too far too fast.

***

In some ways, he's the same old Ookie, the kid with the playful grin who can't go five minutes without saying, "For real?" He still keeps cherry Chap Stick in his thigh pads because his lips dry up so often. He loves fishing in the park near his Newport News, Va., home. And he clings to the two-year-old notebook he covered with pictures of Donovan McNabb. But Ookie's not blind. He knows he was born to play QB, and says the only athlete in the world he'd trade skills with is Michael Jordan: "No one else. Not Michael Johnson. Not Shaq. Nobody."

The words make his mentor cringe. That's not how he trained the boy, not the way Vick sounded in high school when he'd lock himself in the bathroom to do practice interviews in the mirror. Tommy Reamon knows a thing or two about the spotlight himself. A running back at Missouri in the '70s, Reamon also played pro ball for the Steelers and the Chiefs. Then he went to Hollywood and played Delma Huddle in North Dallas Forty. He moved on to TV -- Charlie's Angels and Hill Street Blues -- then went home to Newport News to coach high school ball. Since 1994, he has drilled Vick on every facet of life as a quarterback -- taught him what it means to be black and play the position.

The Hokie QB knows he's no longer normal, never will be again. Everything happens so quickly now that he sometimes wonders what Jordan felt like at the instant he realized everyone and everything would be coming his way. "I stopped being a regular student the moment I became the starting quarterback," he says. "I stopped being a regular person when we got to the Sugar Bowl." And when a prime-time TV audience saw him making those sugarfoot scrambles against FSU, he stopped being a regular Heisman candidate, too. He became the sports world's Next Big Thing.

What are you supposed to think when your heroes start looking at you as a celeb? That's what Vick asked himself in February as he stood in his borrowed tux, right next to his awestruck mom, smack in the middle of the MGM Grand in Vegas. Two years ago he wasn't even the best-known quarterback in his neighborhood. Now he was trying to muster the courage to schmooze the A-list at the ESPY Awards when Mark McGwire walked over to say what a big fan he is. Then Jerry Rice. Then Peyton Manning. "Yeah, and just when they announced I won the ESPY [for college athlete of the year]," Vick says, "Tiger and I were chatting. I couldn't believe it. Everyone knew who I was."

Fact is, Michael Vick's been large since he was 5. No one remembers why his aunt started calling him Ookie, but he's always been known as a quarterback. Back then, the old men who hung around the Ridley Circle housing complex got a big kick out of watching him gun the ball. He'd unleash a throw over one of the buildings and the other kids would go scrambling after it. One day, one of the men told Brenda Boddie about her boy's amazing left arm. "Left arm?" she said. "My son's righthanded." And he is -- in almost everything else.

After seeing him throw lefty, Boddie told little Ookie his arm was a gift from God. A dozen years later, the college coaches who visited Warwick High would agree. Still, it was Ronald Curry, the all-everything QB/point guard up the road at Hampton High who got all the hype. "I was doing the same things in high school," Vick says. "It's just everyone was watching Ronald. I kept saying to myself, 'When I get to college, they'll see.'"

He committed to Tech after Reamon was assured by the coaching staff that his quarterback would not be thrown to the wolves. Reamon saw how Vick's cousin Aaron Brooks had struggled in his first season at Virginia, and he wasn't about to let the same thing happen to Ookie. "A young black quarterback at a major university needs a year to get acclimated," he says.

The Hokies' patience paid off. After one redshirt season, their prized passer dazzled the football world with a 180.4 QB rating, good for No.2 behind Shaun King (183.3) on the NCAA's all-time list. Numbers don't tell the whole story; neither do highlights. The truth is Vick wrecks opposing players, straight up steals their manhood. Before the Syracuse game, All-America linebacker Keith Bulluck roundly rejected any comparisons between Vick and McNabb, the former Orange star. Bulluck was MIA in the second quarter of a 62-0 blowout when the Hokies' fired-up offense ran the option to his side. The senior got so close to Vick he could've kissed him. But just as he tried to unload, the freshman juked and Bulluck crumbled. Vicktimized. First down Tech.

The dude's so quick, he's dangerous. Just ask FSU pass-rushing terrors Roland Seymour and Tommy Polley. Prior to the Sugar Bowl, both were thinking about jumping to the NFL. Both got freaked by Vick, Polley in the second quarter, Seymour in the third. They spent the summer rehabbing torn ACLs.

And yet, the kid's great strength is his ability to make order out of chaos. "He's as cool as I've ever seen," says offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle. Vick's ability to improvise is the stuff of genius -- as much Miles Davis as Barry Sanders. His speed and quickness are so impressive, the Colorado Rockies drafted him to play centerfield even though he hadn't touched a baseball since eighth grade.

Dashing, flashy and smooth, Vick has the tools to break out like no college player has in years. He's the "cool QB" not only because of his skills, but also because of his style. Can you imagine Peyton Manning hurdling a tackler to reach the end zone like Vick did in his very first game? Or snaring a bad snap on one bounce, shaking a linebacker and completing a deep-out laser into tight coverage as he did against Miami? Or dropping a defender with one quick move while tightrope-walking the sidelines as he did at West Virginia?

His timing is perfect. He leaps onto the stage just as hip-hop culture collides with extreme. He's A-Rod, Jeter and Nomar rolled into one, a male Kournikova -- with game. Scouts love him, teammates love him -- and so do the ladies. Boy, do they love him. Vick gets 70 e-mails a day from women offering various opportunities. "Women just flaunting themselves," he says. "Real crazy stuff." After the Sugar Bowl, his image popped up on nearly a hundred Web sites. Tech's compliance officer sent out cease-and-desist letters to keep the NCAA's police dogs at bay. Then Vick-signed items began appearing on eBay, footballs that were selling for up to $400. Before long, grown men were hanging out at practice, sending kids up to ask for autographs. Vick's 16-year-old brother, Marcus, a promising QB, was hounded for his signature at Duke's summer football camp. Brenda Boddie was approached at the Hokies' spring game.

Interim AD Sharon McCloskey is in charge of halting the hysteria. She has studied Tennessee's strategy for handling the Peyton hype. She has an assistant who performs daily "Vick searches" on the Web. She brokers all inquiries, some from as far away as Austria. "He's become like a rock star," she says.

Now everyone in Blacksburg works at warp speed. Ask Frank Beamer about the future of Tech football, and the coach's face floods with light. Four copies of Turn Up the Wick, the book he wrote this spring, sit on his desk. Outside his office window, construction crews hustle to add 10,000 new seats to Lane Stadium. And a day doesn't pass without the reigning national Coach of the Year being invited to speak at a banquet or to play in some golf tournament.

"Michael's made everything speed up around here," says Beamer. "We had four- and five-year plans that are going to be running in two years." Need proof? Check out the new practice fields, the rising hotels. Tech has become the hottest draw in college sports. In the two years since Vick enrolled, season ticket sales have jumped 50%, to 30,000. Now the school has committed $50 million to stadium expansion, CBS has agreed to air four games this season -- the most allowed under conference guidelines -- and beginning next season, ABC and ESPN will pay $105 million over seven years for the rights to Big East football. Even Tech's 15% surge in applications can be partly traced to Vick.

Give Beamer credit: In his first 12 seasons, he built a national power from scratch. Then Vick arrived to take the Hokies Hollywood. Locals don't like to talk about it, but they know their QB is on the clock. If he had been old enough to be eligible, he might have been the first passer taken in April's NFL draft. "I think he needs at least one more season before he goes," quips one pro scout. "Why? Because I'm in the NFL, and I'm supposed to say that."

"Michael Vick is the future," a GM adds. "His legs and his ability to escape trouble will not only beat defenses, it will demoralize them."

***

The boy views his personal highlight reel, zapping through the FSU tape for the 51st time. With each frame, he gets more and more amped. "I wish I could've played all my college games right after the Sugar Bowl," he says. "I would've dominated every team in my path, every team. I know it for a fact. After Florida State, I had so much confidence, I couldn't wait to get back into it." He freezes the tape. "It's like I was up here," he says, putting one hand above his head, dropping the other to his waist, "and everybody else was down there."

McNabb ... Cunningham ... Young -- the comparisons no longer faze him. "Can I be the Michael Jordan of football?" he asks. "Maybe. Makes me think. It doesn't scare me. It's a challenge, and I love challenges. They make me better."

He has no plans to declare for the draft unless he has another blockbuster season. That doesn't stop people from voicing their opinions. Vick's pal Ronyell says he should bolt even if he finishes No.2 in the Heisman voting. NFL great Bruce Smith thinks he can "revolutionize" the game but advised him to keep his options open. Super Bowl hero Kurt Warner wants him to stay in school until he gets a diploma. Manning agrees. "Makes sense," says Ookie. "Of course, you can always come back and get your degree."

Sometimes the issues are simple, sometimes they're not. Reamon recently scolded Vick for wearing a baseball hat indoors while speaking at a school of at-risk students. In July, the quarterback canceled an interview to join fellow Virginia native Allen Iverson for a night of clubbing. Vick has admired him ever since Iverson quarterbacked Hampton to the state high school championship in 1992. The Answer told The Future to follow his heart. "Never forget who you are," he said. Iverson's a hero in Vick's world for the same reason he's a villain in mainstream America. "People talk about the jewelry, the way he dresses, the posse, but that's just him," says Vick. "Those are probably the boys he's been swinging with since he was 7. My boys have been with me since ninth grade, back when I didn't have nothing. How can you diss your boys?"

Once again the mentor cringes. "He'd better not feel like that," Reamon says. "Society says what's accepted and what's not, and I guarantee you when he starts dealing with money, that'll change."

Already the boy can feel the difference. "My friends keep asking me, 'Do you understand who you are?'" he says. "We can be waiting in line to get into some club, and they'll say, 'Man, you're Michael Vick. You're supposed to walk to the front.' I tell 'em, 'That's not me. I ain't got no money or nothing. I'm the same guy I was a year ago.' But it's getting hard when everyone around you is acting different. People start making you feel like a celebrity."

And so the boy would like to say he's only worried about football right now, but this business of being a phenomenon has got him on the run. You see, dealing with the great Michael Vick isn't only a struggle for the defense.

It's Ookie's problem too.

This article appears in the August 21, 2000 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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