BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech defensive end Dadi Nicolas rubbed his hands together as he contemplated the question. Why did he wait until his senior year of high school before trying out for the football team? One moment stood out above all.
He was in English class, struggling to come up with a thesis for an assignment about his future plans. He thought back to the chance he had received after his birth in Haiti, when the woman who raised his biological mother adopted him and brought him to Delray Beach, Fla., at three months old. It triggered a series of life-altering questions.
“What am I doing with my life? After high school, how am I gonna go to college?” Nicolas recalled last week. “It was just that day forward, I needed to make something happen. I had to reevaluate my life and do some growing up. I knew my mom wasn’t going to be able to afford an education for me.”
Hokies defensive tackle Luther Maddy nodded in agreement as his roommate finished the story.
Like Nicolas, his classmate at Atlantic High in Delray Beach, he hadn’t taken football seriously and wasn’t a starter on the team until his senior year. But after overhearing a phone call between his parents and relatives in Haiti about money one night, Maddy wanted to help out.
“God spoke to me and said, ‘You’ve got an opportunity with this football stuff,’ ” he said.
More than four years after separate football reawakenings, their similar backgrounds have led to a bond unlike any other on the Hokies’ football team.
“We’ve been through a lot, faced the same difficulties,” Maddy said. “I feel like we’re blood brothers now.”
Delray Beach, about 50 miles north of Miami, is home to one of the largest Haitian populations in the country, but Maddy and Nicolas were not especially close growing up even though their recruitment went hand in hand.
The two burst onto the scene together as seniors, with Nicolas tallying 70 tackles and 11 sacks in his first season of organized high school football and Maddy racking up 13 sacks. It was Nicolas, though, who initially drew the interest of college coaches, and he orally committed to Minnesota over scholarship offers from Kansas, Florida Atlantic and Western Michigan.
But Atlantic High Coach Chris Bean insisted that Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles and Coach Frank Beamer watch film on Nicolas and Maddy while they were in South Florida to visit another recruit in January 2011. Wiles trusted Bean because Atlantic High products such as cornerbacks Jayron Hosley and Brandon Flowers and wide receiver David Clowney all had strong careers at Virginia Tech and ended up in the NFL.
Once Wiles put on the film of Nicolas, he quickly realized he may have stumbled upon a prospect with many of the same natural pass-rushing skills associated with New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, another Haitian American from South Florida who took to football later than most.
“It’s just another story in recruiting, how . . . there’s no real science,” Wiles said. “You got to go on guys that you know in the business, that you trust in the business. . . . We haven’t had a dud out of [Atlantic] ever.”
Even with those connections, the Hokies weren’t sure whether there would be enough space for both players in their 2011 recruiting class. For a time, they were only going to sign Nicolas.
Maddy thought he was headed to Western Michigan, the only other Football Bowl Subdivision program to offer him a scholarship. He didn’t find out the Hokies had room for him until Wiles called during a basketball game the night before National Signing Day with a scholarship offer. Maddy accepted on the spot.
“If he hadn’t come, I’m not sure I’d be here,” Maddy said of Nicolas.
Fueled by his unheralded status as a two-star recruit, Maddy’s impact at Virginia Tech was almost immediate.
His quickness and ability to run sideline-to-sideline at defensive tackle impressed coaches during the first week of training camp, and he quickly ascended into the defensive line rotation as a true freshman in 2011. Maddy then started nine games last year and leads the team’s defensive linemen with 44 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for a loss, and 6.5 sacks entering Saturday’s game against Maryland. He had two sacks in Virginia Tech’s victory at Miami this past week.
“How do you explain that? I can’t,” Wiles said of Maddy’s rapid development. “Some things you see on video. It’s just hard evaluating all the time.”
Nicolas’s path, though, had more detours, including an early misstep at the end of his first year on campus. After redshirting his freshman season, he was charged with a felony in connection with a stolen bicycle and suspended from the program during the preseason in 2012. The charge was later reduced to misdemeanor petty larceny, but the missed practice time slowed his development in defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s complicated scheme.
However, the 6-foot-3, 224-pound spark plug continued to show flashes in practice once he rejoined the team last fall and is continuing his ascent this season.
In limited action, Nicolas has 27 tackles, four sacks and 13 quarterback hits , including a breakout three-sack performance against Pittsburgh last month as a pass-rushing linebacker. Perhaps more significantly, he was named to the ACC’s academic honor roll last year.
These days, Virginia Tech’s coaches are searching for ways to get Nicolas on the field more and simply marvel at his natural physical gifts, like the long strides that seem to cover more ground than any player Foster has ever coached. Wiles jokes that “when he hits you, now you’ve been hit,” with the impact of a player 25 pounds heavier than when he arrived at school.
The two roommates had more than 50 family members and friends in attendance for Saturday’s win at Miami, and they welcomed the warm weather. But each has grown fond of Blacksburg, and Nicolas noted they now appreciate “how the trees change colors. You don’t have that back in Florida.”
But there has been one constant along the way.
“Being here with Luther was a big blessing, someone who if I needed to talk to, I could feel comfortable with automatically because this transition from high school to college is something else,” Nicolas said. “Being here with him helped me not be homesick. We grew and things kept happening that drew us stronger and stronger.”