Maybe it wasn't instant, but Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick's rise to national celebrity certainly has been quick. He is, though it is sometimes easy to forget when he is dominating defenses on the field, a redshirt freshman--albeit one of the most talked-about redshirt freshmen in college football history. He is 19 years old, a mere kid to Florida State's starting quarterback, Chris Weinke, who is eight years his senior.
But the kid is good. And on Tuesday night, the kid will play for the national championship, leading the No. 2-ranked Hokies against No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
The contrasts in age and style between the elusive Vick and the pocket-oriented Weinke parallel one of the game's strongest story lines. The upstart Hokies, enjoying their first 11-0 season and playing in their first national title game, go up against the Seminoles, headed for their 13th consecutive season among the final top four ranked teams and playing in their third championship game in four seasons.
The Seminoles haven't been shy about playing their role for every possible advantage it could be worth. Even while praising Vick, Weinke couldn't resist taking a subtle jab at the heralded youngster and his team.
"He's obviously a topic, and very deservedly so because he is a great athlete," Weinke said. "Just seeing what's he's able to do on the field is tremendous and I think you don't see it very often--you don't see a freshman being so successful and having an opportunity to play for a national championship, especially at the quarterback position. So . . . everybody wants to talk about him, and I tell everybody to keep talking about him--and then we'll talk after the game."
Of course, the Seminoles know that after the game, the conversation could still be focusing quite favorably on Vick.
"He's not a redshirt freshman," Florida State all-American defensive tackle Corey Simon said. "He has a very strong arm and can run also. He has the whole package wrapped up in one body, and it can be scary if you're on the outside looking in."
Perhaps scary if you are an opponent, but it's mesmerizing for the average onlooker. That's the thing with celebrity--everyone who is on the outside would like a peek in. Vick hasn't been able to go anywhere in the French Quarter this week without being stopped. Some are autograph seekers, but many more are would-be coaches.
"Mike! Mike!" someone yelled through the crowd Thursday night as Vick passed by. "Audible lots of short passes. That's the way to beat Florida State."
Vick grinned, nodded to be polite and then said is his soft, almost whispering voice, "I'm going to do everything I can to win," before moving on.
Vick is the first to admit he is amazed at his own success this season, but he says he has had little time to reflect on any of it. The more games the Hokies won, the more he was talked about, the higher his profile rose. At season's end, he was just beginning to relish the Hokies' berth to the Sugar Bowl when the awards began to mount.
He was named the Big East Conference's offensive player of the year, the first time in Division I history a player has won his league's player of the year award for offense, defense or special teams in his rookie season. Then Vick was named a first-team all-American by the Sporting News and a second-team all-American by the Associated Press.
Then the real shocker: he became the first freshman invited to the Heisman Trophy presentation in the 18-year history of a televised ceremony. And to top it off, he finished third in the voting, behind winner Ron Dayne and Joe Hamilton and ahead of fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees and Chad Pennington. It tied Vick for the highest finish in the Heisman voting by a freshman with Herschel Walker (Georgia, 1980) and Clint Castleberry (Georgia Tech, 1942).
"I think it was real refreshing, because here's a guy who really earned it with his play on the field," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said. "There was no preseason hype for Michael Vick for Heisman. He earned it."
Said Vick: "No way did I think I would have the success that I've had this season. Going out to New York for the Heisman Trophy awards and finishing third in the balloting; having the chance to come down to the national championship game and play . . . these are things that I envisioned playing for three or four years down the road when I've gained experience. I think I had such a great supporting cast around, they've allowed me to have so much success this season."
Sorry, kid, but the supporting cast disagrees. Virginia Tech's all-American defensive end Corey Moore said that without Vick, Virginia Tech would not be undefeated and certainly would not be in New Orleans.
"He's the difference-maker," Moore said.
It's not only because of Vick's talent--his powerful left arm, his rocket-quick release and his elusive running style--but also his leadership. Yes, leadership from the kid.
"He's a very unusual redshirt freshman quarterback," Beamer said. "He's got a great poise about him and he's got a great confidence level about him. The result is that he's got great leadership ability. And he's not an ego guy. That's why he's right for leadership. Sometimes your best player, if you took a poll of the team not many of them want to hang out with him, but everybody wants to hang out with Michael Vick."
His not-so-subtle, yet not galling, confidence does the trick. His teammates believe in him, and they began doing so before this season ever began. Word quickly spread though the program last season that the redshirting quarterback who ran the scout team against Virginia Tech's first-team defense in practice was taking it to his teammates, who only ended the season seventh in the nation in total defense and fifth in scoring defense.
"I didn't get to see him on the scout team," Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle said, "but I knew that no matter whether we were preparing to face a great running team or a great passing quarterback that all of the guys said to just send them Michael Vick because he could do both. I heard he was stirring things up over there."
He continued to stir things up when this season began. In the first half of his first game, he ran for touchdowns of 3, 54 and 7 yards, with the last one being punctuated by that often-replayed flip over a defender and into the end zone. (Vick suffered a sprained left ankle on that play, forcing him to miss the second half of that game and all of the next game, against Alabama-Birmingham. He says now the flip is the only thing he regrets doing this season.)
"I said this to all of our Hokie [booster] clubs last year at this time, that Michael Vick was the type of player that was going to make a lot of big plays, I just hoped most of them were for us," Bustle said. "And fortunately that's the way it worked out, most of them were for us. But to exactly say that I knew he would do everything that he has done this year? I just knew the potential was there, I did not know how he would grow from that."
Vick grew, and learned, rapidly. He threw three interceptions in his first game back from the ankle injury, a 31-11 win over Clemson. He did not throw another until Game 10. Over the course of the season, he helped the Hokies' offense become of the nation's most prolific, averaging 41.4 points per game (first in the nation) and 452 yards per game (ninth).
He led Division I-A in passing efficiency with a 180.4 rating, the second-highest in I-A history. He carried the ball 108 times for 585 yards and eight touchdowns. Vick had a rushing play of 20-plus yards in nine of the 10 games he played.
Those are just the basics. His specialty is making something out of nothing. Against Temple, Vick mistakenly forgot his wristband--which has plays written on it--in the locker room so he was forced to borrow one from one of the backups. The problem is that all of the backups are right-handed, so their plays go to the right side of the field. Vick's wristband plays are designed to go to the left.
"I had my wristband on the wrong side and I called the wrong play," Vick said. "As soon as I snapped the ball I realized something was wrong, but it was too late. I just had to go out there and try to make a big play."
After reversing his field twice, Vick danced his way past defenders and then raced, breathless, 75 yards for a touchdown.
"Sometimes I make some moves and I just keep rewinding the tape back to watch them again and say, 'What did I do? How can I do it again?' " Vick said. "But that doesn't really work. It's all instinct out there."
Like what he did on the play that cemented Vick as one of the stars of this college football season. It occurred in the final minute of Virginia Tech's game at West Virginia on Nov. 6. The Mountaineers had taken a 20-19 lead on a touchdown with 1 minute 15 seconds to play. Vick returned to the field with the ball on the Hokies 15 and no timeouts.
After throwing for two first downs, Vick was flushed from the pocket by a host of defenders. He avoided a sack and rolled to his right. He appeared headed out of bounds, but instead ducked past a West Virginia defender and raced 26 yards up the sideline to set up a 44-yard field goal that kept the Hokies in contention for the national title.
Despite the spectacular nature of the runs, Vick said he would much rather stay in the pocket and pass the football. "I use my legs for an advantage because that's just something that God blessed me with--the speed and the moves to get away from people," he said. "I think that's definitely an advantage, but it's not what I prefer."
Mature beyond his years, Vick has taken all of the attention that has befallen him this season--on and off the field--in stride.
"I think whether I was 19 or 20 or 25, I'd approach everything the same way," Vick said. "Things don't change because of your age, it's all in how you prepare yourself. That's just the type of person I am. I go out there and try to execute the game plan and it's kind of tough to get to me. Nobody really has got to me this whole season."
And he said that he does not plan on letting it happen when game time rolls around Tuesday night. Vick said he does not fear "finally playing like a freshman," something many have asked him about in the past few weeks. He does not worry about being nervous, and says the only time he ever had butterflies before a game was just before his first collegiate start against James Madison.
The butterflies haven't been back.
"Everything has happened so quickly this year," Vick said. "I just want to make sure that it continues. The Lord has blessed me this season. I know that I'm fortunate to be in this situation. Being a freshman quarterback having a chance to play in the national championship is incredible, but I don't want it to stop now."