Five teenage boys draped in duffel bags mill around a driveway as two moms linger a few feet away, trying to blend into the background. It's 11:50 on a steamy Sunday morning in June, and the group is restless. Marcus Vick, Michael's kid brother, is making everyone wait.
Li'l Vick is 17, a spectacular quarterback in his own right, and an hour late. This contingent from Warwick High in Newport News, Va., has a three-hour drive to Virginia's football camp ahead of them. But their star is stuck in Wal-Mart with his mama, shopping for toothpaste, shorts and sheets.
When he finally arrives, Marcus, all cheekbones and eyelashes, flashes a devilish grin reminiscent of Michael's. He also displays his brother's easy confidence, which makes it clear this isn't going to be just any road trip. Marcus, his go-to receiver, Brenden Hill, and their coach, Tommy Reamon, will spend the next week on the summer-camp circuit. Four days at Virginia (with four linemen) will be followed by two more days at Maryland.
Every summer, football prospects and wannabes try to impress coaches on campuses all over the country. But not Vick. He's waiting for the coaches to impress him. Finally ready to roll, Marcus throws two large bags in the back of Reamon's gold Grand Cherokee, then gets a proper send-off from his mom. "This year is going by so fast," Brenda Boddie says, squeezing her boy in her arms. "Soon, they'll be taking him away from me, too."
Before driving off, Reamon reminds his two star seniors-to-be what the trip is about -- working on basics and, especially for Hill, spending time with recruiters. This is a huge week for Hill, a 6'3", 185-pound possession receiver, and he knows it. Because of his 4.6 speed, most ACC schools are on the fence about offering him a scholarship.
Vick, however, is playing it ultra cool. Every power in the country was dying for him to camp at their place. Marcus is just as big as Michael was at 17 (six feet, 185), just as quick and, according to big brother, a more polished passer. To be blunt, Virginia and Maryland aren't in his top five -- and the Terps aren't even close. "But," Vick says evenly, "Coach wanted me to come."
Riding shotgun with a new cell phone, Marcus dials his girlfriend ten minutes into the ride, just to say he is on the road. Five minutes later, he rings one of his boys to rehash the good time they had the night before. And ten minutes after that, he calls his mama. Then he realizes he forgot the damn sheets they just bought.
"Only in America!" hollers a lanky, 50-something man as he weaves his way through a practice field littered with 400 baby-faced ballplayers. "Nowhere else can you do this. Nowhere. Do you realize you're getting to play the greatest game in the world, Marcus? And you wouldn't be able to play it if you were in China. Or Russia. How about that, Perry Patterson? Only in America, fellas!"
The gassed-up jingoistic guy behind the aviator shades isn't Don King. It's Al Groh. He shouts loud enough for everyone to hear, but he's really speaking to a few. Last year, Groh was the bland and blanched head coach of the New York Jets. Now, he's trying to retool Virginia by colorfully calling out Vick and Patterson, another blue-chip QB prospect. The pep talk certainly commands attention, although Vick's are-you-serious expression doesn't peg him as a true believer.
During his 84 hours on campus, Marcus will eat and sleep in the dorms, watch film and throw more footballs than in all of his starts combined. "It's great practice," Marcus says. "Plus, I love to compete. We'll definitely get to do that." And then some. Three times daily, for two hours apiece, Vick and the rest of the camp's 40 QBs throw every pass imaginable. In between they hone footwork, work with camp wideouts against the DBs, and play in a noncontact seven-on-seven tournament.
After Day 1, the QBs are evenly divided into two groups. Among the more skilled group -- shepherded by UVa offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, a former NFL quarterback -- are eight guys on the Cavs' radar. But they're really hot for only three: Vick, burly Anthony Martinez from Richmond and bullet-throwing Patterson from Pennsylvania.
For a kid who hasn't even begun his senior year of high school, Vick has an uncanny presence. He is as laid-back as a hammock and quite comfy with being labeled "you-know-who's baby bro." He even wears Falcons sweatbands. "Being Michael's brother has been very exciting," Marcus says. "It's cool being noticed." Marcus also doesn't mind the ever-present camera in his face and the fact that every camper is trying to show him up. Martinez, a 6'4", 225-pounder with Junior Seau's mug and John Elway's arm, made his rep one month earlier with an eye-popping Nike combine at Penn State. The competition between the state's top two quarterbacks adds to the week's drama.
A heavy heat hangs over UVa's main practice field, where Musgrave is wrapping up his passing Olympics. The QBs have been split again into two teams, this time to test skills. The final battle pits Vick against Martinez to see who has the fastest gun. The drill is to see whose pass is first to hit a fence 20 yards away. On the word "go," the two quarterbacks rifle the ball as fast as they can. Martinez, who appears to move more slowly, launches a rocket that bangs off the fence a millisecond before Vick's ball, giving his group the win. Vick just smiles and walks away. It's only one throw, and he knows better than to hang his head.
NCAA rules prohibit coaches from "recruiting" during camp, but that doesn't mean they can't do their share of target marketing. Coaches cozy up to players, shout encouragement, offer tips. Anything to build a bond. Groh's son Mike, an ex-Cavalier QB and now a receivers coach, is big on nicknames. Patterson's velocity impresses him so much that he gets two tags: P-Squared and Double-P. Patterson knows the coaches are on his jock almost as much as Vick's or A-Mart's. UVa plans to sign two QBs, and everyone realizes that after this camp, Groh & Co. will make a wish list.
Reamon, who monitors the drills from the sideline, tells Hill to pair up with Vick whenever possible. The right QB can help Hill look good. The wrong one can make him invisible. Marcus, who's been tight with Brenden for three years, knows how important these workouts are for him. Like most Warwick kids, Hill comes from a background which, without football, there probably would not be an opportunity to attend college. On the surface, Hill seems the typical gridiron diva, but his character is more defined by his baby face and braces than his tattoos and trash talk. He is well versed by Reamon in the little things coaches love. When a gangly tight end at camp lays out for an overthrown pass only to come up with dust, Hill is the first one rooting him on. And when a safety cheapshots a teammate, Hill is the first kid into the fray.
Unlike the deep talent pool of passers, the wideout crop here is weak. There is Hill and Jesse Pellet-Rosa, a taller, less-refined kid, and Billy Gaines, a 5'7" smurf who ran a 4.25 40 at the Penn State Nike combine (where the practice field runs slightly downhill). Virginia might offer a ride to two wideouts, but probably not from this group. With a big week, Hill figures that will change.
Too bad his nerves aren't cooperating. Hill juggles two of his first three catches before hauling them in. Mike Groh walks over and puts an arm around Hill's shoulder and explains he's losing the ball when it gets six inches away from his body. "Just relax, 'B-Skills,'" prods Groh. "Try to relax."
The advice seems to backfire. Hill presses and overthinks, dropping one ball after another. Vick sees how his normally cool wideout is too hyper, and pulls him aside. He senses Hill is caught up in The Mag's cameras chronicling every move as much as he is in the recruiters' trained eyes. "The best way to handle media exposure," Marcus explains to Brenden, "is to act natural and be yourself."
By the afternoon session of Day 2, it becomes obvious the top receiver is indeed from Warwick. Due to the shortage of WRs, Vick jumps in for work at wideout. He torches the top-three DBs in one-on-ones, the third on a go route when he snares what looks like a pass overthrown by five yards. Vick even told the corner the route. "That dude had just been talking too much," Vick says. The shift to wideout is not intended to say that he's willing to quit quarterbacking. It's more calculated than that. His burst and competitive fire have the coaches ecstatic -- and the campers in awe.
The seven-on-seven tournament is next, and the Lions -- Marcus and Brenden's team -- easily win their first game. But that night, Vick locks his keys in his dorm and eventually scales a 20-foot wall to his room, pulling himself up via windows and scaffolding. "It was crazy," says Hill. "I was about to get one of the coaches to let us in, but Marcus and another guy wanted to be daredevils." Vick and Hill miss the beginning of the team's second game, and the Lions fall 2 TDs behind. Vick, back at QB, rallies his team with a quick TD to Hill and a pick from his DB spot. But the comeback falls short and the Panthers, scrawny pigeon-chested teens without a D1 prospect among them, celebrate like they have just won the Super Bowl.
Quarterback is one of the few positions at which a prospect can be discovered in summer camps. Recruiters put more stock in seeing a kid in baggy shorts throw in person than in any grainy game footage. Kids from Perry Patterson to James Lofton's son David, a fleet but raw 6'3", 205-pound QB from Plano, Texas, all know the stakes. And the pressure can be more suffocating than a nine-man rush -- especially when your dad clocks every move. One father, obsessing over his D1 fantasy, is dragging a son with D3 talent to six camps in seven days. All they'll probably wind up with is road rage and a half-dozen T-shirts. Vick doesn't have to worry about any of that. He has the skills -- and he has Reamon. "I could write a book on the seduction of a 17-year-old," says Reamon, who has been a high school coach for 12 years.
Reamon knows about big-time football. A star RB in the World Football League, he scored 5 TDs for the Chiefs in his only NFL season. His first QB protégé, Aaron Brooks, signed with Virginia seven years ago. But Brooks, now with the New Orleans Saints, got mired in sideline politics and shared the job with Tim Sherman, the son of a Cavs assistant. Reamon's relationship with Virginia head coach George Welsh got ugly, and Reamon vowed never to send another QB to Charlottesville. But all that changed with Groh. "He's legit," says Reamon, "and his staff is young and enthusiastic. We like them."
The feeling is mutual. Thanks to Vick, the Lions roll through their next six games and make it to Wednesday morning's title game. Too bad Vick and Hill won't be there to play. By 8 a.m., they have piled into Reamon's SUV for a three-hour drive up Route 29. Maryland waits for them. As Reamon pulls out of the parking lot, Hill asks the coach for an evaluation of his performance. Reamon's answer is terse: "You dropped too many passes."
Staring out the window, Hill is silent. "When he told me," Hill says later, "it put a lump in my throat. But I know Coach was straight with me."
Vick doesn't need to ask.
College Park, Md., is only 130 miles away, but construction and traffic grinds the trip into a five-hour drive. Worse still, the Terrapin camp is semicontact, but Vick and Hill didn't bring helmets and shoulder pads. Fortunately, being a blue-chip recruit has its privileges, and the Warwick kids are escorted to the front of the equipment line.
The campers at Maryland don't seem too impressed by Marcus' pedigree. "At UVa, we had great camaraderie with the rest of the camp, but this is a weird situation," says Hill. "Me and Marcus seem like outcasts."
Meanwhile, Ralph Friedgen, Maryland's rookie head coach, watches it all from outside his office overlooking Byrd Stadium. As Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, he was a genuine QB guru, developing pint-sized Joe Hamilton and speed-impaired George Godsey into Heisman candidates. Friedgen is also a Maryland alum. He was recruited as a QB by then-UM assistant Lee Corso, but moved to guard. Those were better days for the Terps, who last won a bowl in the Reagan era.
But Friedgen is shaking things up, and just having Marcus Vick at his camp is a coup. The coach recognizes it's a long shot -- on the ride up Marcus says he doesn't even know the coach's name -- but that doesn't deter Friedgen. He's made a video of Hamilton's exploits in a system perfect for Vick and arranged a golf-cart tour of the campus.
Trouble is, Vick's arrival at Maryland has not been rosy. He and Hill are cranky from all the waiting around. Really cranky. "Me and Marcus are itching to get home," says Hill. "We got a sixth-floor dorm, with beds big enough for a 3-year-old and only one shower for the whole hallway." Even the school's mascot, which greets the Terrapins as they leave the locker room for the field, has become an issue. "What's inspiring about running out and seeing the crack of a giant silver turtle?" digs Hill, without a hint of a smile.
The format for the Maryland camp is different from UVa's. It's a fundamentals camp and doesn't have any seven-on-seven work. The prep coaches working the camp like it because the coach/player ratio is lower, but many of the players don't. Georgia Tech's camp used to be run like the one at Virginia. That way, Friedgen could put in his plays and see how well kids picked them up. But when you're trying to develop a bond with the local prep coaches, sometimes you have to make sacrifices.
The one sacrifice Friedgen is unwilling to make is one-on-one time with Marcus. Gaining that access means buddying up with Reamon. Friedgen, who is witty, self-effacing and as likeable as he is large, yucks it up with Reamon for 20 minutes the first night of camp. Afterward, Reamon says he feels like he's known him for 20 years. "I really like him," Reamon says. "Marcus will too."
He's right. The two-hour golf-cart tour and video presentation make Vick a huge Terps fan. "He's great," says Vick. "I was really excited -- and surprised." The Maryland camp finishes well for Hill, too, who settles in and shows the precise routes and supple hands Reamon has been trumpeting to recruiters all spring. After Thursday afternoon's practice, the boys pack up their gear, shake Friedgen's hand and once again climb into Reamon's SUV to finally head home.
The three-hour drive to Newport News seems to go quickly. Both kids feel like they've spent a semester away at college, not just a week. Reamon tells the boys he is proud of them. "You did well," he says. "You worked hard and showed 'em something." As the coach pulls into Vick's driveway, Marcus peels himself off the front passenger seat and is greeted by eager questions from his dad, Mike, and tail-wagging from his pit bull, Champagne.
It's only 8 p.m., but Marcus is ready for bed. "I'm not used to waking up at 7:30 every morning in the summertime," he says. And while tomorrow it's back to the Warwick weight room, this fall there will be many more places for Marcus to see -- and places for him to be seen.
This article appears in the August 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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