Classes ended the previous week and until summer session begins, the streets around town feel empty and parking is actually available on Virginia Tech’s campus. For a few moments, Rashad Carmichael is alone, skipping rope inside the Merryman Center.
Though no one’s paying him to be here, this is his job now, he says, a regular 9-to-5 gig lifting weights, running suicides and waiting for the phone to ring.
One week earlier, Carmichael, 22, had realized his dream. He spotted an unfamiliar 832 area code and knew his future was calling.
“How would you feel about playing for the Houston Texans?” asked the voice on the other end of the line.
How does one answer that question? Carmichael had dreamed about the moment since his father first placed a football in his crib. A lifetime of working out three times a day. Five years at Virginia Tech. It all led to this. The Texans selected Carmichael, an undersize but lightning-quick cornerback, in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft on April 30. For Carmichael and his close-knit family, there were tears and hugs and much celebrating.
And then nothing.
“The coach said, ‘You’re on the team now, but we can’t talk to you until the lockout is over,’ ” Carmichael recalls. “ ‘So just be ready, be standing by the phone. When the lockout is over, you need to be on the next flight.’ ”
So that’s what he does now. He trains, and waits for the 832 area code to pop up again on his phone. He can still feel the faint vibrations from the draft-day excitement, but it’s dulled now by his new reality: He’s eager to take care of his family, and while he hasn’t played a single snap in the NFL, his new employer has locked him out.
A couple of days before last month’s draft, Carmichael was back at his family’s home in Waldorf. His mother, Mae, spotted him out front, sitting alone in silence on the back of his car.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, momma. I’m fine.”
But the setting wasn’t complete. His father, Bernard, had helped prepare him for this, and he should have been there, too.
Growing up in nearby Clinton, Carmichael was given the nickname “Roc” by his father, a retired Air Force master sergeant at Andrews Air Force Base. Carmichael was barely 5 years old when they began their training. Up at 7 a.m., and out the door. Every day.
“My dad would never make me do it,” Carmichael says. “He’d tell me and my brother, ‘You don’t have to be here. But if you want to be great, I’ll show you how.’ ”
The boys wore harnesses around their small waists and pulled a large tire attached to a rope. They sprinted up the hills in Cosca Regional Park. Their legs pumped as hard as they could, but a homemade parachute behind them kept the boys from going too fast.
Carmichael would work out in the morning. Then practice with his youth team in the afternoon. And then train again with his dad in the evening.
“I wasn’t playing video games, I wasn’t going out. I wasn’t doing this and that,” Carmichael says. “This is all I did.”
Bernard would record every game and study film with his son throughout the week. He’d fast-forward through a lot of the highlights, preferring to review the young player’s mistakes. Over and over.
Other neighborhood kids would hang around, too, hoping to hone their own skills. Something about Carmichael — or his dad — always seemed to attract people.
“Roc was a hard worker,” says Phil Taylor, a childhood friend and the Cleveland Browns’ first-round draft pick last month. “Roc showed me the ropes my ninth-grade year, what it meant to actually work hard and go after a goal.”
Taylor and Carmichael played together at Gwynn Park High, but Taylor, a giant defensive lineman with deceptive speed, was the one that colleges wooed. He made a trip to Virginia Tech in 2005 and took Carmichael along for the ride, eventually asking the coaches to at least watch his friend run. It turned into the only scholarship offer Carmichael would receive.
In the summer of 2008, before his sophomore season, Carmichael was working out in Blacksburg when his father summoned him home. He gathered all three of his sons — Nygee is now 20, Shaikh is 12 — and told them he had a dream. Bernard was only 40 but was a large man with high blood pressure. His dream told him his days were numbered, and he wanted his sons to take care of the family.
“He said, ‘It’s on you now,’ ” Carmichael recalls.
Carmichael returned to school, and only a week later, his mother began calling. He had a bad feeling and didn’t answer, so she called Jason Worilds, a former teammate and close friend. He drove to Carmichael’s apartment and pleaded with him to open the door.
Worilds didn’t really need to say anything because Carmichael knew: His father was gone, a heart attack upending the family’s world.
Last month, on the second night of the draft, the Carmichaels had a party at their Waldorf home. Bernard’s photos still line the mantle beneath the flat screen TV. Mae made red, white and blue ribbons for people to wear in his honor. Everyone who passed through the front door had a tray of food — macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, barbecue.
Carmichael wore the track jacket he had received at the NFL scouting combine last winter, but he didn’t watch the draft coverage on television. He didn’t even know if he’d be selected on the draft’s second day, which consist of the second and third rounds. Analysts projected him to go anywhere from the second to the fifth round.
One of his agents, Rodney Thomas, a former college player himself, tapped away on his phone, trying to gauge Carmichael’s prospects and also tracking lockout developments.
Not long before the second round began, the NFL had won a victory over the players in their protracted labor dispute when a federal appellate court granted the league permission — at least temporarily — to continue with the lockout.
Carmichael wasn’t fretting the work stoppage, though. He hung out in the garage, took slow walks up the street and only occasionally poked his head into his party. Sure enough, the draft ended for the night and guests dispersed. Carmichael still wasn’t an NFL player.
“This a wakeup call,” he said then. “I can feel chills down my back. Like, this is real, this is really going on. You can’t take nothing for granted.”
Carmichael earned a bachelor’s degree in human development but concedes that he’s been focused on the NFL for years. “There never was really a Plan B,” he says.
When Carmichael lost his father nearly three years ago, he’d assumed responsibilities that aren’t common for a 22-year-old. He bought winter coats for the family with leftover money from his Virginia Tech stipend. He makes sure Shaikh has finished his homework and reminds his mother to change the oil in her car.
“When he talks like that, it’s like, ‘Okay, how can I relieve some of this pressure off of him,’ ” says Mae, 42. “But he feels like this is what he has to do. I just want him to be a 22-year old. And he’s not. He feels like he has to be the provider and take care of all of us.”
Mae works as a medical data technician at Andrews. She lives in a comfortable middle-class home in Waldorf and the family isn’t struggling to make ends meet. Still, Carmichael is eager to make his mother’s life easier.
He finally heard his name called on the third day of the draft. Carmichael and his family were in the stands at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, where his brother Nygee was playing in the spring game for Towson University. The Texans made him the 127th pick overall, the 22nd cornerback selected. Houston featured the league’s worst-ranked pass defense last season, and Carmichael could have a chance to make an impact in a young secondary.
He hung up with Texans coaches and hasn’t spoken with them since. Because of the lockout, he can have no contact with anyone from the team.
Carmichael will also earn no money from the NFL until the lockout ends. In a normal year, he might have spent the first weekend after the draft in Houston at a rookie minicamp. He’d earn at least $100 of per diem money there. He’d meet coaches, learn the defense, explore a city he’s never even set foot in.
Instead, he woke up the Monday morning following the draft, feeling no more like a Houston Texan than he had the previous week. He drove to Friendly High, where he worked out with cornerback Joe Haden, the Cleveland Browns’ first-round pick in 2010, and Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, the coach at Friendship Collegiate School.
The days passed, with no end in sight for the lockout. So Carmichael returned to Blacksburg.
There are other former Virginia Tech players waiting for the lockout to end, and many have gravitated back to school. Most of the student body might have scattered for the summer, but the former Hokie players still fill the IHOP after their workouts and Joe’s Diner on Main Street for dinner.
“You know, what you gonna do?” running back Ryan Williams, the Arizona Cardinals’ second-round pick, asks Carmichael in the team’s weight room. “How long you here for?”
“I don’t know,” Carmichael tells him. “Be here most days. For now.”
Jarrett Ferguson, the Hokies’ director of strength and conditioning, knew some of the newly turned pros would be back in the weight room, so he draws up daily regimens for them.
For Carmichael, the Virginia Tech weight room doesn’t cost anything, which makes it a more attractive option than returning to Delray Beach, Fla., where he trained for 11 / 2 months before the draft.
“It feels more like home here,” he says.
For now, Carmichael is not worried about money. Taking care of draft picks is a sunken cost for most agents. Training, lodging, vehicles, food — the months that precede the regular season can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For the two-year-old upstart Dimensional Sports Inc., Carmichael is a low-maintenance client, though. His agents gave him a laptop, but he plans to keep his old Acura. Carmichael didn’t want to return to Florida. And he’s content in his small one-bedroom apartment.
“I’m not needing to go buy cars and gold chains and all that stuff,” he says.
When the lockout does end, Carmichael will likely sign a contract with the Texans for the league-minimum $320,000 and will pocket a signing bonus likely worth $200,000 to $400,000. In the meantime, his agents seek other revenue streams. A couple of deals with trading card companies and autograph signings will keep gas in his car and keep the lights on in Carmichael’s apartment. He’ll soon sign with an athletic apparel company, which should give him clothing and equipment, but probably no cash.
Carmichael seems more focused on setting up a non-profit organization, working with the American Heart Association, establishing a football camp and maybe helping with a food drive in Washington.
“He’s in this to play football. It’s not all about the money,” Malik Shareef, one of his agents, says. “He’s not your typical 22-year old guy. He’s a grown man and he’s been a grown man for a long time. The money he does get, he wants to help his family.”
Carmichael starts each morning with a phone call to his mother. They’ll talk another half-dozen times throughout the day, touching on the weather, lunch plans, traffic.
“It’s almost like he just needs to know — or I need to know — where each other is at and what we’re up to,” Mae says. “It’s not to check up on him; it’s for some peace of mind, knowing that we’re all okay.”
He’s chatted with a couple of Texans players — former Hokies Xavier Adibi and Duane Brown — who’ve invited him to work out in Houston. He might do that, but not right now. Waiting in Blacksburg for the lockout to end, Carmichael enjoys being only 41 / 2 hours away from his mom and younger brothers.
In the weight room, he’s surrounded by guys like Williams and Worilds, a second-year linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and at home, he has endless hours of game film to study.
During his sophomore year, in fact, Carmichael cut off his cable TV and collected dozens of DVDs featuring game and practice film. He plays them non-stop on the 32-inch hand-me-down television his father gave him when he left for school.
Virginia Tech’s secondary has proven to be a strong feeder program for the NFL. Only one year since 1997, in fact, have the Hokies failed to send a defensive back to the pros. Carmichael has studied them all, from DeAngelo Hall to Brandon Flowers to Macho Harris. And now he’ll start studying the pros. A former teammate has already sent him some NFL game film, which he’s eager to digest.
For now, that’s the closest he’ll come to the NFL.
“It still feels like it’s a dream, but it’s kind of weird right now. Like, let’s wake up and get going already,” Carmichael says. “All I know, whenever the phone call comes and they say report to work, I’ll be ready.”