Each of the Washington area's five major college football programs is in a preseason of transition at the game's most important position--quarterback. Continuing today, The Post will look at how, and with whom, each team is progressing.
Virginia Tech fans can barely get through a football game without having to answer a question from the opposing side: "What in the world is a Hokie?"
But Brenda Boddie, the mother of Virginia Tech's new starting quarterback, redshirt freshman Michael Vick, hopes it won't be long before people work that out (see box) and another question becomes even more popular: "Who in the world is Ookie?
Ookie is the nickname Vick's aunt, Tina Vick, gave him when he was a baby, though no one is sure when or why it started--or how it caught on.
"Everybody in the family calls him Ookie," said Boddie, who lives in Newport News, Va., with her husband, Michael Boddie, after whom Vick was named, and his three siblings, Christina, 20, Marcus, 15, and Courtney, 9. "When we were at his high school games yelling, the only thing I could think to say was 'Go Ookie!' So I guess we'll be at Virginia Tech hollering 'Go Ookie!' too. I'm sure people are going to think we're crazy at first, but they'll catch on."
Vick will make his first start--perhaps the most highly anticipated debut of a quarterback in Virginia Tech history--Saturday when the 13th-ranked Hokies host James Madison.
The hype surrounding Vick began a year ago when he emerged from Warwick High School ranked as one of the nation's top five prep quarterbacks. A powerful left-hander, Vick passed for 4,846 yards and 43 touchdowns and rushed for 1,048 yards and 18 touchdowns during his high school career.
Although he was redshirted last season--coaches resisted the temptation to use him, even when starter Al Clark and top backup Dave Meyer could not play because of injuries--everyone in Blacksburg knew of him and speculated about what he could do. Clark himself stood in the elevator of the team's hotel after leading Virginia Tech to a 38-7 win over Alabama in the Music City Bowl--a win that capped a 9-3 season--and told a younger player to look forward to the days ahead.
"You guys are going to be great next season," Clark said. "The defense is all back, and next year you guys will have Vick."
To this point in his college career, Vick has been seen only in practices, scrimmages and the spring game, when he completed just 3 of 10 passes for 35 yards with one interception. But he already has been compared to former Syracuse star Donovan McNabb, the three-time Big East offensive player of the year and first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Vick's physical skills are not questioned. In the spring, he set school records for quarterbacks with a 4.33-second clocking in the 40-yard dash and a 40 1/2-inch vertical leap. He has been described by Coach Frank Beamer--usually reticent in praising his players--as stronger than former Hokies quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, another first-round choice in the NFL draft, and quicker than the elusive McNabb.
"If you haven't seen him play, you're in for a treat," Beamer said. "He's really a talented guy. He's got a great release, he can throw the football, he's very athletic, and still the best thing about him is that you like being around him. He's a good person who will work to be good. I think he'll be a special player for the Big East in time, but he's certainly not that guy right now. Our first ballgame, he's going to make some big plays, probably some of them will be for the other team, but I bet he'll be better the next week and even better the next."
Vick, who has slept with his Bible under his pillow every night for more than six years, said he has tried hard not to let the mounting pressure and expectations bother him. The key word for Vick's support group--which includes his family, his high school coach and former pro football player, Tommy Reamon, and Virginia Tech's players and coaches--is patience.
"In America, when you're talking about a multi-million dollar business, patience is not always easy to come by," Reamon said. "All we can do as a supporting cast is let him know that it's okay to have ups and downs. The redshirt season was good for the mental stability of that child. But he's still a child. Every time we talk, I tell him to keep his head straight."
For Vick, that means staying himself: An outgoing and fun-loving person who, according to his mother, always is into something.
"When he was about 3 years old, I came into the kitchen one time and caught him standing on the oven door," Boddie said. "He had pulled down the door, thrown a piece of sausage in a pan and had climbed up on the door to watch it. That boy thought he was cookin'. It's a good thing for all of us he wasn't big enough to actually reach the knobs to turn the stove on."
Another time, about three years later, Vick super-glued his eyelashes together. Doctors advised Boddie to let them grow about a week before cutting out the glue.
"I guess I'm still like that," Vick said, laughing about all the trouble he used to cause. "The players in the locker room say I'm still always acting up, messing with somebody. I can't help that--it's just me."
And it's what drew teammate Ronyell Whitaker, a redshirt freshman cornerback from Norfolk, to Vick. The two met on a flight when both were taking their official visit to Virginia Tech, and they became instant friends, though it didn't appear that way to fans at the Hokies' spring game. Vick, playing for the first time without the yellow jersey that reminds defenders not to hit him in practice, took more than one unfriendly shot from Whitaker. Whitaker drew two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for late hits against his roommate.
"When he was in the protected quarterback jersey, he'd always say stuff like, 'I think I would have broken that tackle,' " Whitaker said, laughing. "He was always running his mouth back in the room. The truth is, the type of player Mike is, he probably would have broken a lot of them. But when I had the chance to get him back, I got him good so I could go back to the room and make it my turn to talk."
But whether it's Whitaker or senior defensive end Corey Moore, the 1998 Big East defensive player of the year, Virginia Tech's players have immense respect for Vick. It doesn't matter that he will be the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Hokies since Will Furrer in 1989. They have confidence in him, and he has confidence in himself.
"I choose Tech for two reasons, and the first was that it is an in-state school where my mom could easily come watch me play," said Vick, who was heavily recruited by many schools, including Big East rival Syracuse, which became one of the schools on Vick's short list. "And I decided that I didn't want to go to Syracuse and live in the shadow of Donovan McNabb. I'm not going to play to live up to the expectations of anyone. I'm just going to do what Mike Vick does best--and that's play football. I want to make a name for myself."
Even if that name is Ookie?
"Aah," Vick said, laughing at the thought. "Let's hope that doesn't catch on too much down here."
WHAT IS A HOKIE?
According to the Virginia football media guide, when Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College changed its name in 1896 to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the school decided it also needed to change its cheer. A contest was held, and senior O.M. Stull won for his "Hokie" yell, which is used to this day. Later, when asked if "Hokie" had any special meaning, Stull said it was a product of his imagination and used only as an attention getter for his yell. It soon became the nickname for all of Virginia Tech's teams.