CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Michael Rocco was a boy, he had allergies so severe they would inflame his airways to the point where breathing no longer was a subconscious act. So his parents often found themselves on the front porch of their Western Pennsylvania home, holding Michael in a rocking chair and praying the dampness of the evening would moisten their youngest child’s lungs.
“It always acted up in the fall and into the winter,” Rocco said. “Whenever the seasons started to change, I started feeling pressure on my chest.”
The pressure takes on a different form these days. No longer stricken by the respiratory distress that complicated his childhood, Rocco has been identified as the best option to quarterback a Virginia football team aiming to become bowl-eligible for the first time in four seasons.
As the son, grandson and nephew of football coaches, Rocco grew up ingrained in the nuances of the game. His throwing technique is sound. His ability to absorb offensive concepts is advanced. His understanding of the proper decisions to make within a scheme is unquestioned.
This is why Rocco, a sophomore, pairs so well with Cavaliers offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, whose complex, timing-based, pro-style offense demands precision above all else. From their first encounter — when Lazor was one day into the job at Virginia and Rocco was still orally committed to Louisville — their like-mindedness and affinity for each other was apparent.
Rocco’s family moved to Lynchburg, Va., when he was in middle school and he operated a more streamlined version of the pro-style offense under his father at Liberty Christian Academy. So he was familiar with the foundation of the scheme, and was taken by Lazor’s NFL coaching background.
Rocco said Lazor’s presence at Virginia was “definitely a big part” of his decision to change his commitment from Louisville — which had just undergone a coaching change and was preparing to switch to a spread offense — to the Cavaliers two days before high school seniors were allowed to sign national letters-of-intent.
Rocco made a positive impression, as well.
“I thought early on when I first met with [Rocco] and spent time with him that he had a real positive ability in the classroom, and over time I’ve seen him grow at a good pace, which a quarterback needs to,” Lazor said. “Then the next step is take it from that classroom and make it count on a rep on a practice field. It sounds simple, but it’s a big step. Over time, everyone gets better at it.”
For Rocco, the process started earlier than most. When he wasn’t watching his father coach, he was tagging along — inhaler readily available, just in case — with his older brother, Chris.
Tall for his age, Michael’s coordination and athleticism developed quickly by necessity. He wanted to play with Chris and Chris’s pals, so he had to keep up.
Sure, he had to sit through 15 to 20 minutes of nightly breathing treatments. And when the swelling in his lungs wouldn’t subside there were more than a few ambulance rides to the hospital, where Michael might stay for up to a week.
But the boy was growing stronger physically and mentally. The lifelong football coach in a family of lifelong football coaches could see it, even if at the time the coach’s son couldn’t.
“A lot of his early development came by virtue of the fact that all the playing of sports and hanging around was done with kids that were five years older than him,” said Frank Rocco, Michael’s dad.
When Michael was in seventh grade, the junior varsity quarterback at Liberty Christian got injured. Michael stepped in and led the junior-varsity squad to victory against opponents two and three years older than him. He was the varsity starter as a freshman. Liberty Christian won the state title when Michael was a sophomore.
Following his senior football season, Rocco made an arrangement with Liberty Christian’s baseball coach that allowed him to attend several of Virginia’s spring practices. He sat in on team meetings and watched from the sideline during workouts, soaking everything in.
When his first collegiate season arrived, Rocco played, sparingly, in six games. He was one of three true freshmen the Cavaliers put on the field in 2010.
Rocco widely was considered the favorite to win a four-man quarterback battle entering training camp, but it wasn’t until Coach Mike London announced, 11 days in, that Rocco would begin taking the majority of practice reps that teammates noticed a discernible change in his demeanor.
“I think it was just that confidence of saying now he’s the guy,” said redshirt freshman fullback Zach Swanson, Rocco’s roommate. “He started making a lot of really good throws. He wasn’t as conservative with his throws. He’s not just going to settle for the check-down. He’s going to make the ball fit in a spot.”
Fall is approaching. The seasons soon will begin to change. Virginia’s season opener against William & Mary is Saturday. And even though Rocco hasn’t been seriously bothered by asthma in years, the pressure in his chest is starting to build once more. He says he’s ready for it. He’s dealt with such sensations before.
“Last year I felt like I was behind, a little bit uncertain of what I was doing,” Rocco said. “I believe that I’ve grown tremendously in the fact that I know where I’m going to go with the ball and if [the defense] does something to get me out of it, I know where to go with the ball then. That’s what the offense is like. It’s fast, and it happens.”