Sunday, April 25, 2010
Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech football fans delight in Vick's return
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BLACKSBURG -- Tadd Haislop's arm still trembled several minutes after his brief meeting with Michael Vick.
"I'm so excited right now," the Virginia Tech junior said, clutching a freshly autographed jersey in his right hand. "So excited."
If Michael Vick has a large number of detractors left in this town, he never would have known it Saturday.
One sarcastic dog bark in the bookstore. One man outside asking people to sign a petition to build a dog park. A light smattering of boos at the stadium where he once dazzled -- quickly drowned out by a crescendo of cheers.
Other than that, the controversial quarterback received a universal welcome in his first appearance at his alma mater since being released from federal prison on dog-fighting convictions.
Vick soaked up a standing ovation from the estimated crowd of 40,000 at halftime of the Tech spring game, the longest and most vociferous reception for any of the 14 former players who were introduced.
Earlier, roughly 400 fans paid $25 or $30 for Vick's autograph -- with a portion of the proceeds going to charity -- at Tech Bookstore on Main Street. Others had to be turned away after the line snaked through the store and created waits of 90 minutes or more.
"It's great," Vick said of the reception at the bookstore. "This is a place where I spent three years of my life, and I was able to build relationships with people and put myself in my position where I could take care of myself for the rest of my life and also further my education. It's a great group of people here, and I've still got a lot of love and respect for them."
The feeling was mutual, at least among those who showed up. The line for autographs began at 6:30 a.m., four hours before the scheduled start of the event. Fans applauded when Vick entered the room. Later, chants of "Let's go Hokies!" filled the air.
"I'm the biggest Vick fan you could probably find," said Tech junior Rob Scogin, who was among the first in line. "I've got everything there is. All the jerseys. All the memorabilia. All the cards. All the shoes."
Scogin said he's had to defend his loyalty to Vick to friends at other schools, but the 2007 dog-fighting convictions didn't turn him against the Eagles quarterback.
"I feel like he's changed a lot since then," he said. "Watching his TV show, 'The Michael Vick Project,' you can kind of tell he had a different attitude about everything and towards life in general. He's putting more dedication into his work."
Vick chatted briefly with each fan as he signed hats, posters, jerseys and shoes. He then allowed them to take pictures with him.
"Ooh, this is sweet right here!" Vick said to 22-year-old Matthew Harris of Christiansburg. Harris asked Vick to sign a mural he'd painted of the QB in an Atlanta uniform, his left arm cocked to his ear.
"I celebrated the day he got out" of prison, Harris said. "I'm not a Tech fan at all. I liked Vick when he got there and I've liked him since."
About halfway through the signing, Vick's younger brother, Marcus, walked into the bookstore to the delight of fans. Marcus said he was making his first appearance at Tech since being kicked off the team in January 2006 for a variety of on- and off-the-field issues.
"It's Virginia Tech love," Marcus said. "Everybody on campus always embraced the Vick family, so it's just a great, warm feeling."
Both Vicks later attended the spring game, savoring their return.
"He was excited about it," Marcus said of his brother. "When we were driving into Christiansburg he was just saying everything looked different. He was looking at the stadium in amazement, because everything looked different from what it looked like when Mike was here. There's about 7 or 8 more million dollars into that stadium. It's a good look."
Tech coach Frank Beamer, who has supported Michael Vick throughout the quarterback's rise and fall, spoke with Vick on the field before the game.
"I've told him: You've got a great story to tell," Beamer said. "You had a lot and you lost a lot and you made some bad decisions that affected your life, and now you're trying to get it back. How many young people can he help telling his story?
"But you've got to be an example of that. You've got to be an example of [how] it went wrong and now I'm getting it right."
Although the autograph signing was not purely a nonprofit endeavor, Vick's representatives promised a $1,000 donation to the Humane Society of Montgomery County, indicating that they would be open to make a larger gift depending on the success of the event.
Community contributions -- particularly those tied to animal welfare -- have become a regular part of Vick's rehabilitation efforts.
"It's something I always wanted to do and it's something I will continue to do," Vick said. "I'm doing it sincerely from the heart and not because there's a motive behind it. It's a passion now. I enjoy moving around during the course of the past year, going across the country and doing these different things."
And at long last, his travels returned him to his second home, where harsh judgments took the day off.
"He's trying like heck to get his life back in order," Beamer said. "I'm for him."
On Saturday, it seemed, so was everybody else.
For more quotes from Michael Vick's appearance, visit http://blogs.roanoke.com/rtblogs/pressbox