They grew up together, these second cousins named Aaron and Ookie. Aaron was older, the outgoing one. Ookie, he would always sit back and listen and think. Their neighborhood wasn't the best, and it was easy to get into trouble. Just stand on the corner for a few minutes and see. But they were always playing some sport, hanging at the Boys and Girls Club, staying away from harm.
Funny how things evolve. Even now, years later, Ookie still is listening and Aaron still is doing the talking. And sports still is the center of their universe. Just this January, Ookie flew to New Orleans, where Aaron now lives, and they spent 12 days together, laughing and lying back and hashing out things.
Ookie needed guidance. The world outside of Newport News, Va., knows him as Michael Vick, and he is expected to be the first pick in this month's NFL draft. He's only 20 and has a lot to learn about life and certainly about the NFL. Aaron's last name is Brooks, and he hopes to be the Saints' starting quarterback next season. He's just 25, but he already has his degree in anthropology from the University of Virginia and two years of pro experience.
So Ookie came to stay at Aaron's place. For five days, they were joined by Zeke Bratkowski, the former Bears and Packers quarterback and 26 years a coach. Bratkowski, 69, was hired by Vick's agent -- who also is Brooks' representative -- to act as Ookie's on-field tutor. They talked, these two men of such contrasting generations. And Ookie kept quiet and listened, just as he always had done.
He welcomed the help. Already, he had found that making adult decisions wasn't easy, or necessarily enjoyable. Twice during the past season, he declared he would return to Virginia Tech. He enjoyed college, liked the games, felt comfortable in Blacksburg. But once he realized he could be a top-five choice, he wavered. Ultimately, he turned for direction to a committee of advisers that included Brooks and Bruce Smith, once a Virginia Tech player. Their feedback confirmed his lofty status.
"When they said I could be top five, I figured it was time for me to be a man and move on to the NFL," Vick says. "I have never looked back since."
He originally signed with two inexperienced Virginia-based agents, a fact he denied at the news conference during which he announced his plan to turn pro. But almost immediately, he had second thoughts about his representation. Again, he sought out Brooks for advice.
"He knew I was sweating," Vick says. "That's when we talked. It saved me. Saved me." Brooks put him in touch with his agent, Andre Colona, who had never represented a first-round NFL pick. After interviewing him and other agents, Vick finally settled on Colona and mega-agency Octagon with its massive marketing, public relations and financial arms.
"Things weren't going the right way," Vick says. "But they have settled down. Lots of stuff has been taken off of me, so now I can relax and focus on what I have to do. Everyone I need is now there for me."
But this peace of mind wasn't instantaneous. He was vulnerable, and Colona asked Brooks and Bratkowski to offer guidance. Their message was 2001 fresh. They told him about how life would be in the NFL. They told him about the dangers of hangers-on and gladhanders and the temptations of money. They told him about the expectations he would face, how his work ethic would be dissected, how his every quote would be examined and his body language analyzed.
If Ryan Leaf received this advice, he didn't heed it. But unless he is fooling lots of people all of the time, Michael Vick will not be another Ryan Leaf. If the Chargers take him with the first pick -- they'd be nuts if they don't -- they'll finally get this quarterback stuff figured out right.
Because Vick listens. He listened three years ago when his high school coach told him he would be best off if he redshirted a season at Virginia Tech. He did -- and he was. And he's listening now when he is told by Bratkowski and Brooks that this NFL step isn't about instant gratification. He's not sophisticated enough as a quarterback to immediately run a pro offense. He needs at least a year of schooling, just like he received in college.
Not that he would turn down a chance to start from Day One. That's his ego talking. But don't be misled by his guarded way and easy manner. He might be susceptible to stumbles in judgment. But he also has a steely confidence about him, a self-assurance, an intriguing maturity that eventually overrides his more youthful leanings.
Give him a season in the classroom. Then ... "I don't think the NFL will ever have seen the likes of me, a quarterback who moves the way I do and throws the way I do," he says. Oops. That sounds cocky. He catches himself and adds quickly, "I'm not saying that with arrogance or anything. That is just how I feel."
He's not alone in his assessment. Houston General Manager Charley Casserly, hoping the left-handed Vick would stay at Tech for another season and become his No. 1 choice in the 2002 draft, has studied him extensively. "There has been no quarterback like him in the league before," Casserly says. "Steve Young comes the closest in speed, but this guy is faster. He's going to make plays. He's going to be something to watch."
Maybe it is a gamble to give a $10 million signing bonus to a work in progress, a player with just two years of college experience who has never dealt with multi-receiver sets and five-step drops and complex defensive schemes, knowing he might never refine his skills. But when you see Vick's incredible mobility -- quarterbacks aren't supposed to run 4.3 40s -- and his arm strength -- Bratkowski was initially stunned by how hard and far he could throw -- and hear people tell you how he draws folks to him with a soothing charisma and how he pushes himself to improve and yearns to be the best ever, you get a feel for a rare package too tempting to pass up.
"We don't want to be the Portland Trail Blazers of the NFL and pass on Michael Jordan," says Chargers Coach Mike Riley. Oops. Riley catches himself. That's not fair to Vick, of course, linking him to Jordan. "No, I am not saying he will be another Jordan," Riley adds, quickly. "But I have hardly seen anything like him. He is a very gifted athlete. He has stuff throwing the ball that is really interesting -- a strong arm, a quick release. And he is so amazing running the ball."
Vick was raised in Newport News, in southern Virginia, a few blocks from the Hampton Roads Boys and Girls Club. His parents were unmarried teen-agers, still in high school, when he was born, the second of four children. His dad left to try to find himself in the military; his mother moved in with her mother. She drives a bus now, but at first she didn't work, putting her priority on raising a family. Michael wasn't always an angel; he had a few rough spots in school, a suspension here, a reprimand there.
But nothing more. "Sports kept me from doing worse," he says. Vick is sitting in a restaurant in Blacksburg, a few miles from his apartment near Virginia Tech. He slowly is eliminating a well-done T-bone. Until he signed with Octagon, his restaurant trips were limited to McDonald's and Burger King. Now, he likes frequenting slightly better establishments. A lot. He's already separating himself from Newport News.
When he was 7, Vick started playing football on the streets with Brooks. They both sought refuge at the Boys and Girls Club, run then -- and now -- by James "Poo" Johnson. Allen Iverson was another member. "Sports kept me off the streets," Vick says. "It kept me from getting into what was going on, the bad stuff. Lots of guys I knew have had bad problems. But if I had to, I would go fishing even if the fish weren't biting. Just to get out of there."
Vick's neighborhood is harmful enough that Johnson says the club's main challenge "is to see how many lives we can save every day through things like our gang prevention program. But Michael and Aaron, they were great guys, you didn't worry about them. Michael was always full of energy. Even then, he had a work ethic. You challenged him, and he worked to win."
"Michael hasn't really changed at all," says Brooks, who replaced injured Jeff Blake in New Orleans near the end of last season and quickly emerged as one of the league's brightest quarterback prospects. "He's very cool, laid-back, very humble. That's what I like about him. I just tell him that I will set the NFL standard first, then it will be up to him to match it. We laugh about it, but it will motivate both of us."
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