A light drizzle has fogged up the car windows, and so, before taking one last nostalgic spin around the Virginia Tech campus, Michael Vick leans forward and, with his golden left hand, wipes clear an area of the glass with the same motion you'd use to wave goodbye.
The tour around the picturesque mosaic of slant walks and cut-stone buildings framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains begins, appropriately enough, at Rector Field House, where Vick introduced himself to college football by running a 4.26 in the 40 as a freshman. Directly across the street is Lane Stadium/Worsham Field, where his exploits over the past two seasons led the Hokies to a 20-1 record, which included an eye-popping -- though losing -- performance against Florida State in the 1999 national championship game. And just up the road is Merryman Athletic Center, where the news hit hard in January that the sophomore sensation was leaving school to likely become the No.1 pick in the 2001 NFL draft.
The car swings toward the center of campus and passes Hutcheson Hall, where Vick had his first college course (minority group relations) ... on to Burruss, where he nearly racked up as many parking fines as he had first downs ... around Drillfield, where he went sledding for the first time ... and past Dietrick Hall, which Vick says is infamous for its cheese potatoes and other "nasty food."
Finally, the car pulls up at Cochrane Hall, Vick's freshman dorm, and comes to a stop. Vick seems to be watching the students crossing the street in front of him, but he's actually focused on the raindrops sliding slowly down the car window. There is a long, silent pause.
"This is my home," he finally says, almost to himself. "This place made me. But now I have to leave and go on to other things in my life. I just hope ... I just hope I can come back to Virginia Tech one day, and all these people will look at me the same way they do now."
Another pause, this one shorter: "You know, I was just starting to get comfortable here, but the opportunity of a lifetime came along and I had to take it. I had to roll the dice."
Even a top-5 pick in the NFL draft isn't a lock -- and nobody knows this game of chance better than the San Diego Chargers, only now recovering from the Ryan Leaf fiasco. Even so, you have to like the odds on Michael Vick delivering the goods.
Physically, he's sick. Besides a 38-inch vertical and a sub-4.3 40, Vick bench-pressed 320 pounds and set a position record for backs at Tech with a 515 in the squat. Put the speed, the agility and the muscle into an equation, and you figure the instant he signs his contract, he becomes one of the most dangerous run threats in the league. But then you factor in his explosive arm strength -- ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit says no other QB he's seen in the past decade comes close to matching it.
Before this farewell tour of campus, Vick stood before a captive gathering at the right hash of the 40-yard line inside Rector. A friend jogged down to the left corner of the end zone, put his hands in the air and turned his back to Vick, who then delivered the ball with head-shaking accuracy and hand-baking velocity. Later, when he tossed a pass against the fieldhouse wall, you half expected the ball to punch cleanly through the concrete like a bullet through cardboard. You wonder why he'd even bother to leave the pocket, unless it's to break the monotony.
There's only one little problem: Vick is nowhere near ready to put his talent into play in the Pentium-fast, pressure-packed NFL. Just ask his cousin.
"You can't knock what he did," says Aaron Brooks, last year's step-in sensation as quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, who also happens to be his cousin's confidant. "But you can certainly knock the conference he did it in." Good point. Vick completed only 177 passes in two seasons, and a third of his starts came against teams like Temple, Rutgers and James Madison. Driving around recently in Vick's hometown of Newport News, Va., Brooks tried to explain the speed, strength and complexity of the NFL to his cousin, only to give up in frustration. "It's like trying to explain a cool movie," says Brooks. "And then you just tell the dude, 'Go see it yourself.'"
Vick's college reel includes only 21 games in a program that did not feature a sophisticated, pro-style passing attack like the one Peyton Manning prepped in at Tennessee. (How important is this? Just ask former Hokie star quarterback Jim Druckenmiller -- if you can find him.) Just three seasons ago, Vick was so frustrated by the complexity of Tech's offense that he was staying up all night studying just for the next day's practice and was contemplating a switch to wide receiver. Even this past season, the Hokies often simplified their run-oriented offense by cutting the field and Vick's options in half, thus allowing him to roll out of the pocket and work just one side of the field. Still, he completed only 54% of his passes, and when he was blitzed often by Syracuse and Boston College, Vick went a combined 11 of 28 for 136 yards. During one four-game stretch last fall, Vick turned the ball over seven times.
"Vick is the better athlete, but Brooks is the better quarterback," says Tommy Reamon, who coached them both at Ferguson High School in Newport News. "That's true," Vick acknowledges. "For now."
At this point, Vick clearly lacks polish in three essential NFL qualities: passing touch, defensive scheme recognition and the subtle but utterly critical instinct for knowing when to tuck it and run and when to use his gifted feet to adjust in the pocket for another look downfield.
The highlight tape runs are spectacular, but often misleading. When a young quarterback bails from the pocket and takes off down the field, hardheaded pro scouts will tell you it's usually an indication that he was confused by the coverage, didn't make it through his read progressions and hit the eject button. "If he tries to get cute and run around all over the place with the ball like he did in college," says Brooks, "the guys in the NFL will knock his butt out."
Vick's idol is former 49ers QB Steve Young, also a lefty and perhaps the greatest running quarterback of all time. But it's important to remember that Young didn't distinguish himself as an NFL quarterback until he refined his passing skills, which is now the challenge facing Vick. He can develop as a passer and then a quarterback, or he can fall into the Kordell Stewart trap and rely so heavily on his feet that his arm never catches up.
The object of all this scrutiny sees nothing but success. "I'm not lacking experience," says Vick. "I don't even know what that means." The 6'1" signal-caller -- if you're scoring, his height's another mark against him -- goes on: "I lost only once. And in each game I did everything right. I made play after play after play. I have the skill to play in the NFL. But, of course, it's going to take some time because I'm young."
As in 20. For that reason alone, a lot of football people say Vick should have taken advantage of another year (or two) in Blacksburg, so that his game experience and mental grasp could play catch-up with his enormous physical tools. Instead, some NFL team -- most likely the Chargers -- has to confront a two-part, $50 million question: How much will Vick's limited experience hinder his unlimited potential? And, is the breathtaking prospect of Vick 2003 enough to make up for the rough reality of Vick 2001? (With the number of teams poised to pounce should the Chargers pass on Vick, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.)
"Coming back for another year of college would have been perfect for him," says Brooks. "It would have forced him to grow as a leader, a player and as a person. He's not ready for the speed or the tempo in the NFL. He has no clue just how hard wins are to come by up here. He has no idea how much defensive coordinators are going to mess with him."
Besides talking to Brooks, Vick also called Donovan McNabb just before making his final, final decision (he changed his mind and his agent twice). The Eagles QB (and MVP runner-up) told him to be patient, to work on fundamentals like footwork, accuracy, follow through, adjustments in the pocket and, most of all, to think the decision through. "This is something that could haunt you for the rest of your life," McNabb told him.
McNabb, taken by the Eagles with the No. 2 pick in 1999 as a fifth-year senior out of Syracuse, played in more than twice as many college games (45) as Vick and threw three times as many passes (938). "The extra year I spent in college is really paying dividends for me now," he says. "The NFL is 90% mental for a quarterback -- learning defensive schemes, understanding blitzes, game prep, film work, knowing the playbook. A lot of guys can take games over in college with their athletic ability. The first time you realize you can't do that in the NFL, man, that can be a rude awakening."
So rude that some young NFL quarterbacks -- and their teams -- never recover from it. Vick's shortcomings are magnified by the fact that in today's NFL, teams can no longer wager top dollars for a young gunslinger and then bring him along slowly -- just in time for him to declare free agency. So far, the only bankable trend among the league's new wave of young guns is that the more experienced passers stand up to pressure better and pay dividends quicker. High-pick busts like Leaf and Akili Smith, the two lowest rated passers in the NFL last year, both came out early, while Pro Bowlers McNabb, Manning and Daunte Culpepper played four years of college ball.
This makes the Vick pick a watershed moment for the NFL. If Vick struggles, a cap-strapped league still gun-shy after Leaf-Smith may abandon the potential-over-preparedness draft philosophy forever -- or at least until the next Vick comes along to tempt them. But if Vick dominates early, the league could stampede toward the NBA approach, with younger and less experienced players getting bigger contracts and more face time.
"That's hurt the NBA," says 49ers GM Bill Walsh, speaking for an "experience rules" generation of coaches and GMs. "I can't say it's wrecking the NBA, but it is certainly affecting the game. And all those young players in the NFL would do much the same, especially at the QB position. I'll assume Vick will be the first pick in the draft, and I'll assume he's going to have a great pro career. But we better not assume that he is going to flourish in his first year or two."
Vick even acknowledges that the ideal situation for him would be in San Diego, where he'd get a de facto kind of NFL redshirt year, like Culpepper had in Minnesota, to study the game under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Norv Turner and veteran QB Doug Flutie. "Michael Vick makes the unbelievable plays look easy," says Turner. "He is the kind of player you want to be involved with." So much so that two major factors in signing Flutie were that he had a style similar to Vick's and he was open to the idea of mentoring a young passer.
"I'm not ready right now," says Vick, walking to his old Tech locker at the end of his campus sayonara, his shoes untied and his laundry in a bag slung over his shoulder. "I've got work to do. I have to learn an offense, relocate, get a feel for the speed of playing in the NFL. You never know how long it's going to take. Some guys take three, four years; other guys are faster."
On the wall near Vick's old locker, the Virginia Tech football staff has hung a chart to show players the monumental task of making it to the NFL. At the top of the chart there are 971,000 high school players. That group is then cut to the 54,000 who play in college, to the 6,000 players who get scouted by the NFL, to the 340 who are invited to the rookie Combine and, finally, to the 150 whose names are called in the draft, where -- from that original pool of nearly a million -- one player stands alone as the year's best.
This year that player is Michael Vick.
Is he fully ready for the NFL? No.
So why is he The One? Because even though the worries over his inexperience are perfectly rational, the NFL has never seen a physical package like this before and no one in this league -- no one -- wants to be tattooed with the most vile phrase of all: I passed on Michael Vick.
This article appears in the April 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Fleming File: The Anti-Leaf
Here's hoping Michael Vick ...
Mel Kiper Home Page
College Football front page
The latest news and stats
NFL Draft Index
Feeling the draft
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...
Who's on the cover today?
ESPN The Magazine: Lemieux Deux
After 12 seasons in the Great ...
ESPN The Magazine: Chuck Knoblauch's Second Chance
No one can say I'm in denial. ...
ESPN The Magazine: 3 Ball
The Bucks' big shots have ...
ESPN The Magazine: Jamar's Journey
Wisconsin CB Jamar Fletcher ...