Father's Death Forces Virginia Tech Cornerback Rock Carmichael to Live Up to His Nickname

Rock Carmichael will start as Virginia Tech's field cornerback in Saturday night's season opener against Alabama.
Rock Carmichael will start as Virginia Tech's field cornerback in Saturday night's season opener against Alabama. (By Chris Graythen -- Getty Images)
By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- When Rashad Carmichael was younger, people called him Ra or Ra-Ra. But when his father heard those nicknames, he thought they made his son sound soft. From then on, the father said, his son would be known as Rock.

Soon enough, Carmichael had to become the rock in his family.

Carmichael's father, Bernard, died last summer of a heart attack. As the oldest of three boys, Carmichael felt pressure to be strong. He bottled up the pain. Some nights he had trouble sleeping. On the field, he fought for playing time and said he felt like he was "just going through the motions."

Now, he said, he has a new perspective. Although his father's death still weighs on his mind, Carmichael has found a sanctuary between the white lines. And it has shown. When No. 7 Virginia Tech faces No. 5 Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta, Carmichael will be the Hokies' starting cornerback.

"I'm at a way better spot," Carmichael, who played at Gwynn Park High, said of his mental state. "I can deal with it. I learned you never get over it. You just learn to live with it."

Carmichael, a fourth-year junior, came into his own this summer. On Saturday, he and the secondary will face a tough test. Alabama's Julio Jones is one of the nation's most explosive wide receivers. He is fast, powerful and has an uncanny ability to break tackles. At 6 feet 4, Jones also overshadows the 5-11 Carmichael, the smallest member of Virginia Tech's starting secondary.

But in preseason practices, Carmichael has consistently made what the Hokies' defensive backs coach, Torrian Gray, described as "wow" plays. Heading into Saturday, Gray said he has confidence in Carmichael.

"I like the way he has prepared himself in the spring, the way he has practiced thus far in fall camp," Gray said. "The only thing is the unknown. You don't quite know how he's going to react. I think I've got an idea that he's ready to step up on that stage."

Carmichael has spent his life preparing for the opportunity. Although he started playing organized football with the Clinton Jets youth program, his father pushed him through intense, three-a-day workouts at an early age. Carmichael and his younger brother, Nygee, would wake at 7 a.m. to sprint up hills, run suicides and drag tires that were tethered to their waists. They worked out again in the early afternoon. Later in the day, they would practice with the youth team.

"We had a job at early ages," Nygee Carmichael, a freshman running back and wide receiver at Towson, said in a telephone interview. "Instead of practice, it was a lifestyle for us. That's all we do. We never really had time to go outside and play."

But it didn't feel like a chore. Football brought the family together. Carmichael and his father would analyze film immediately after each game, looking for his mistakes and for areas to improve. His father even produced Carmichael's highlight video during the recruitment process, editing the footage and adding a soundtrack. When football dominated dinnertime conversation -- it often did -- Carmichael's mother would force the men in the family to change the topic.

That focus paid off when Virginia Tech offered Carmichael a scholarship. His bond with his father stayed strong when Carmichael arrived in Blacksburg. In fact, Carmichael would call his father three or four times a day.

In the summer of 2008, Bernard Carmichael checked into Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he struggled with high blood pressure and after a heart arrhythmia was detected.

On July 13, he chatted with doctors about college football and appeared healthy when he told his family to go home for dinner. He died shortly afterward. He was 40. That night, Mae Carmichael called Hokies defensive end Jason Worilds and told him the news. She asked Worilds, a friend so close he is considered family, to tell Carmichael about his father's death. She wanted someone there to comfort her son.

Carmichael had spoken with his father earlier that day. Before hanging up, his father said: "I'm all right. I'll talk to you later." But when Carmichael heard the knock at his door, he said, he knew something was wrong. Worilds and Carmichael sat and talked for hours that night.

"You go from being a man in the house," Worilds said of Carmichael, "to being the man of the house."

Carmichael missed his father, and he struggled last year to deal with the new sense of responsibility. He could not concentrate during practices. He would sometimes go into the coaches' offices and cry. He called his mother as many as five times a day to check in.

"It was a lot of stuff," Carmichael said. "I've got two younger brothers, my mom at home. People calling. Just a bunch of wild stuff. And me not being there, it felt like it was a lot of pressure on me. I definitely grew up fast."

Carmichael internalized the pain, but said he found comfort in being around teammates. As he had done all his life, Carmichael immersed himself in football.

In the three previous years at Virginia Tech, Carmichael saw limited playing time but developed behind a pair of all-American cornerbacks. He studied film with Brandon Flowers, whom Carmichael considered his biggest mentor before he left school a year early and was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008. On the field and at the defensive backs' regular Thursday night dinners, Carmichael learned from Macho Harris, a fifth-round selection last spring by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Now it is Carmichael's turn. The Hokies have consistently fielded one of the country's top defensive backfields. Their field cornerback is responsible for roaming a large expanse of the field, mostly in zone coverage. But heading into this season, defensive coordinator Bud Foster said the field cornerback was one area that concerned him. As a first-year starter, Carmichael is unproven at a position that can be exploited in big-play situations.

But that does not seem to faze Carmichael. After his father's death, Carmichael has learned perspective and a mental toughness that has made his nickname, Rock, seem fitting.

"After you go through something like that," he said, "the regular pressures in life don't affect you. I know what I have to do, and I know how I have to do it. And I know I have bigger angels up there watching over me to do it."

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