This weekend, Virginia Tech football not only looks to improve to a 4-0 start, but also to take time to honor a former player who many say is responsible for putting the program on the map.
But the decision to induct Michael Vick into the school’s sports Hall of Fame has created a split between fans who stand by the school, and staunch opponents, some of them former fans, who question the university’s integrity.
Years before his time in the NFL, and the ties to dogfighting that would place him behind bars, Michael Vick became a star in Blacksburg. Under him, the Hokies finished 11-and 1 in back to back seasons.
“Every time Virginia Tech had the football, you just had a hunch that something you had never seen before was about to happen on a football field,” said former Hokies play by play announcer Bill Roth. “And he could do those kinds of things.”
Roth said learning about Vick’s criminal history marked a sad day for anyone who knows the athlete. But he says the Hall of Fame can’t exist without Vick – and defends the Hall selection committee – an unnamed panel - for taking its time.
“Thirty-five other Virginia Tech athletes have gone into the Hall of Fame before Mike, and I think the committee has measure on its deliberations on when is the right time for him to go in,” Roth said. “And now that his Tech career is over, and his NFL career is over, they felt that now is an appropriate time for him to go in.”
Mike Woolwine’s family held Hokie season tickets for decades. The Christiansburg native remained a loyal fan when the quarterback made the NFL.
“My Christmas gifts - the only thing I asked for two years in a row - were Vick jerseys,” he said. “I wanted a national title jersey with Vick’s name and number on it, and I wanted an Atlanta Falcons jersey with his name on it.”
Kate Blanton, who was born in Radford and also once rooted for the Hokies, says it wasn’t until she got involved with a pit bull rescue charity did she grow to understand what Vick had done.
“Reading the case files that have come out – seeing dogs that come from these types of conditions and knowing how they got there, and knowing in my mind that Michael Vick did the same things to these dogs – that I deal with every day - it makes me sick,” she said.
Mike and Kate are in a small group meeting for breakfast in Blacksburg, weeks before the Vick induction. They’ve arranged for silent protests during the ceremonies this weekend, saying the choices Vick has made should mean he’s ineligible for the Hall.
“Virginia Tech is saying – "It’s okay, we’ll overlook that because we want the dollars that come with this,” Blanton said. “They’re looking at the sports piece of it, not the humanity piece of it.”
While most of the selection criteria focuses on athletic accomplishment, it also includes a stipulation that the person must not have been a source of embarrassment to the university in any way.
Sporting a Hokies shirt, Frederick Gusler is in a small bar in Roanoke, watching the Hokies season-opening win over West Virginia. He’s on the fence about Vick’s induction.
“But he’s a special case in a sense that he brought the university a lot of recognition,” Gusler said. “You know, it is just football, but the admissions, the applications to Virginia Tech went up tremendously after we were in the Sugar Bowl and lost to Florida State.”
Gusler went to graduate school at the same time Vick played for the Hokies (1999-2000.)
“You’d look at the newspaper every Monday, when the rankings came out, and we’re just steadily climbing up the rankings,” he said. “I don’t think anybody the beginning of the year – there’s nobody that you could say came into that season, and thought, well, Virginia Tech’s going to end up being the number #2 team in the country.”
Now retired from the NFL, Vick is working as an analyst this season on Fox, and he spent training camp as a coaching intern with the Kansas City Chiefs. And since his release from prison, Vick has become involved with the Humane Society and other animal welfare programs. Longtime Hokies announcer Bill Roth says the former star player has more to prove.
“I think, at the end of the day, the Michael Vick story is going to have a happy ending,” he said. “It had a great beginning, and then it turned horrific, and it turned very dark and ugly. But since then, I think the clouds have cleared, I think Mike has worked very hard to make that happen.”
Meanwhile, more than 200-thousand petition signatures opposing the induction have been delivered to Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands’ office. And the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine issued a statement of its own, expressing disappointment with the decision.
We reached out to Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock. His office referred us to a previous statement given to a newspaper, where he said he absolutely supports Vick going into the Hall of Fame, but Babcock also admitted he underestimated some of the negative reaction.
Vick is one of five former Virginia Tech athletes to be formally inducted in a Friday ceremony on campus, and recognized during a halftime ceremony at Saturday’s game versus Old Dominion.