From the 757 to the NFL and back again

Story and Photo by Butch Maier

There are those who floor it on their way out of town.

No looking back. Not even a split-second glimpse at the rearview mirror.

Then there are those who could not look themselves in the mirror if they turned their backs on the places where they grew up.

"From the 757 to the NFL," a July 13 panel at Hampton University's Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, might as well have been called "From the 757 to the NFL and back to the 757."

Three prominent pro football names from the Hampton Roads area code – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mike Vick, and former New Orleans Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks – returned to share stories and words of wisdom for area high school football players. Pictured here: From left, Aaron Brooks, Mike Tomlin and Mike Vick.

NFL writer Jason Reid of The Undefeated, an ESPN-run website, moderated the 90-minute-long, live-streamed event at the Scripps Howard Auditorium.

Tomlin was born in Hampton and attended Denbigh High in Newport News. Vick and Brooks are cousins from Newport News. Vick starred at Warwick High after Brooks made his mark at Ferguson High.

The three have not lost sight of their origins.

"It's as simple as paying it forward for me," Tomlin said. "I love this place. I'll always come back here. It's an awesome feeling to see that 757 guy."

He pointed to dozens of teens in high school jerseys and added, "I can't wait to see you guys."

The impact of football on Tomlin's life can't be understated.

"It was a vehicle for me and I'm sure for all of us to get out, get educated, do productive things and stay off the streets," he said.

Brooks faced similar circumstances. He seeks to offer hope and encouragement to others.

"There were strong challenges, but we prevailed," he said, mentioning his early housing struggles.

Vick will be inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in September. It seems astonishing now, but when he left the 757 for Blacksburg, it took time for him to adjust to the college game.

"I really didn't know if I could play college football for four or five months," said Vick, who finished third in the Heisman voting as a redshirt freshman in 1999 and sixth during an injury-marred sophomore season. "There were times early in my career when I wanted to pack up and come home."

Brooks, who starred at the University of Virginia, had no such learning curve upon his arrival in Charlottesville.

"The competition I experienced in the 757?" Brooks said. "I felt like I owned the campus."

He went on to own the distinction of being the quarterback who led the Saints to their first playoff victory, defeating the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams in 2000.

There is one distinction Brooks could do without.

Reid asked the panel if society would ever stop viewing quarterbacks who happen to be African American – such as Vick and Brooks – as "black quarterbacks" and view them simply as "quarterbacks."

"I would hope so, but until that day comes, I think it's going to be difficult for white America to accept us," Brooks said. "We don't run around saying we are a 'black quarterback.' ... It's just a stigma that's been placed on us that has been very hard to shake."

As a Pro Bowl QB, Vick had no difficulty shaking defenders early in his career.

What advice did he have for those looking to follow in his footsteps on the field?

"At the end of the day, you just have to chase greatness," Vick said. "Either you want it or you don't.

"Everything's not going to be perfect. Everything's not going to go your way." For Vick, who served 18 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation, setbacks on the field also were educational.

"Through the losses, I found out how much I truly loved the game," he said. Vick was NFL Comeback Player of the Year with the Eagles and was thankful Tomlin brought him to Pittsburgh for the final season of his career.

That was several years after the coach tried to persuade Brooks to join the Steelers.

Tomlin told him, "You'll be with a great family."

Brooks, who had children by this point, responded, "I know, but I've got my own family."

Still, Tomlin had to ask.

"I'm unashamed about my affinity for guys from the area," the coach said. "Just knowing where they are from, what they are about. There's a hardening, just being from this place."

There also are hard times for NFL coaches. Even ones with stellar records. Such as the time last season when three-time All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown live-streamed Tomlin's locker room speech on social media.

Reid mentioned how that's not an easy situation.

"It's not," Tomlin said. "But I'm not gonna trade him."

Laughter filled the Scripps Howard Auditorium.

Reid also brought up how Tomlin has been called just a "rah-rah" head coach – even after a Super Bowl title and a second conference championship.

Unfair criticism?

"It is, but not unexpected," Tomlin said. "We're compensated to be judged – even unfairly." Tomlin added that "it's tougher on my mom than it is me. I've had to convince her not to call in and represent me on talk shows."

Hampton University President William Harvey kiddingly asked Tomlin why he didn't follow in his father's footsteps at Hampton – opting instead to star as a receiver at William & Mary.

That still didn't keep Dr. Harvey and the university from presenting Tomlin with a framed honorary HU jersey to match ones given to Vick and Brooks.

How's that for a welcome-home gift?

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