As football players take their first steps on fresh turf for the opening of 2004 practice this week, I'm reminded of some of the more memorable stadium exits that players made last year.
Most were dramatic displays of triumph or loss: a crazed Brock Berlin performing a mock alligator chomp to a bleacher full of former Florida classmates after his Miami team rallied to beat the Gators; a defeated Eli Manning limping toward the locker room after getting tripped on the final key down against LSU in his final Ole Miss home game; an undersized pack of St. John's Johnnies hoisting the Division III championship trophy that they had wrested from perennial power Mount Union.
But the most indelible image of all, one of quarterback Bryan Randall after his Virginia Tech team upset No. 2 Miami, was one in which the line between feat and failure was blurred, to fascinating effect. Arguably the biggest win in program history, the Hokies' 31-7 victory over the Hurricanes included one of the weakest individual performances in Randall's career. After going 0-for-4 with a pick in two-and-a-half quarters, Randall was yanked in favor of then-freshman Marcus Vick, who wound up throwing a 46-yard touchdown pass to put the team ahead 31-0 in the third quarter.
No matter what the game's outcome, such a botched opportunity would have surely disappointed -- or, at the very least, subdued -- any starter worth his listing on nfldraftblitz.com. I was thinking of this as I tracked down Randall as the final seconds ticked off the game clock. But there was the game's Least Valuable Player, waving his arms towards the bleachers, jubilantly urging the home crowd to cheer louder for the young teammate who had just showed him up on a national stage.
Surprising? Not to those who know Randall. This is after all, a veteran player who isn't just preaching selflessness and mental toughness during preseason practices, but living it. He's helped out the school's basketball team as a backup point guard in the football offseason, and deferred interview requests to hoopsters who haven't had his level of publicity as a Hokie. He worked with underprivileged youths in Los Angeles as part of Athletes in Action in the early part of summer, and led voluntary football workouts as soon as he returned to campus.
He is so well-liked by his teammates that, "if you don't get along with Bryan," said quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers, "you're gonna have trouble." Moreover, although Rogers wasn't sure whether Randall had the arm to be a Virginia Tech starter upon the quarterback's arrival from Williamsburg's Bruton High, Randall has completed 60.7 percent of his 527 passes for 4,244 yards and 27 touchdowns in three seasons with the Hokies. With 5,259 total yards, the senior is just 847 yards away from establishing a school career record.
Nevertheless, Randall has been forced to fight for his job at every step of his Virginia Tech career. As a freshman, he had to beat out current wide receiver Chris Clifton and the since-departed Will Hunt for the backup quarterback spot, and as a sophomore, Randall battled Grant Noel before taking over the starter's role three games into the season. Since then, his competition has been Vick, the younger brother of the program's all-time greatest player, Michael. Anticipation at Virginia Tech was so high for little Vick's debut that when he got his first minutes against UCF last August, he received a standing ovation from the Hokies' crowd.
Now, Tech fans, like it or lump it, are going to have to channel all of that support towards Randall. On Aug. 3, three months after Vick was convicted on three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he and two teammates gave alcohol to 14- and 15-year-old girls at the players' apartment, the sophomore pleaded guilty to reckless driving and no contest to marijuana possession in a separate incident. Just before he faced the judge for these latest charges, Virginia Tech suspended Vick for the entire season.
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"We all found out together, and it was a shock to the whole team," said Randall, who describes himself as good friends with Vick. "But we had no choice but to move on and stay focused on the goal at hand."
Given the elephantine proportions of that goal -- beating consensus preseason No. 1 USC in the season lid-lifter on Aug. 28 -- Randall had started preparing for the possibility of Vick's absence long before the sophomore's suspension was confirmed. And for Randall, that preparation revolved around getting his teammates, not just himself, in shape and up to speed.
Without having to be asked by Rogers, Randall rounded up the two freshman quarterbacks, Cory Holt and Sean Glennon, who would be elevated into backup roles in the event of Vick's suspension. He asked that the young players convene with him in an empty athletic department meeting room three times a week during July so that they could learn Virginia Tech's various protections before official practice began.
"I'd been where they were at one point in time, and knew how important it was for them to learn even just the basic offense," Randall said. "It's gonna be a slow pace, but they're coming along just fine."
Virginia Tech hasn't had a lot to celebrate lately. Last fall was marred first by bizarre TV footage of head coach Frank Beamer slapping receiver Ernest Wilford on the helmet during a sideline argument, and then by a four-loss November and December that undermined the team's triumph over Miami. And after losing star tailback Kevin Jones to the NFL, Cedric Humes, the Hokies' projected top tailback for 2004, broke his leg in a spring scrimmage. But as the team embarks upon its first year in the mighty ACC, Virginia Tech (unranked at season's start) has one thing that not every top-25 team does: a rock-solid role model under center.
"He's a great student and leader, kind and competitive at the same time," Rogers said. "But what makes Bryan Randall really special is his ability to fight the human impulse to be selfish. How can you not root for him?"
The other day, I asked Randall about that Miami game, and whether the whooping and hollering and grinning was as sincere as it looked.
"It's all about team, right?" he said after a brief pause. "I mean, I'd much rather have a terrible game and have my team come out on top than have a great game and see my team lose."
If 100 percent truthful, an answer like that deserves a lot of respect. And if he's not being completely honest, and simply saying the sort of thing that team players say? Perhaps, then, it deserves even more.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.