When I was growing up, the only pro sports team in my home state was the Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball Association. One of my first sports memories is of the Squires coming to visit my school in Norfolk, when I was in the fifth grade. I was in awe at meeting my sports hero, Dr. J, Julius Erving. I couldn't believe it. � That sort of thrill was rare in the Old Dominion State. Pro sports just weren't a big part of people's lives—especially after the Squires folded in 1976. The team most Virginians supported was the Washington Redskins because D.C. was so close. At least 80% of the people in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area were Skins fans. Oh, you had a few people who strayed and rooted for the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Dallas Cowboys...like me. The Steelers were my team. As you might have guessed, I liked their defense.
I was overweight as a kid, so I played only street football. But I couldn't resist the sport for long. High school football brings Virginia towns alive, as it should, considering some of the players the state has produced: Michael Vick, Allen Iverson (he was a great high school quarterback), Lawrence Taylor, Aaron Brooks. I decided I was definitely going to play when I got to Booker T. Washington High. And play I did—both ways.
When it came time for college, I had offers from several major schools around the country, but I wasn't going to leave Virginia. My father, George, was very sick, and I wanted to be close to home. The University of Virginia might have been the natural place to go, but a scout from the school told my coach that my feet were too slow (I wonder where he is now), so I ended up at Virginia Tech. People would always come up and ask me why I was there, but to me it was the right place to be. I guess I helped put the Hokies on the map, and I got to see how intense my home staters are about the Virginia- Virginia Tech rivalry. It's like Redskins-Cowboys or Buffalo Bills- Miami Dolphins. Experiencing that sort of intensity prepared me for the next level.
Even when I got to the NFL, with Buffalo in 1985,I would come home every off-season. I wanted to stay close to my roots, and I enjoy the amenities Virginia has to offer, like golf and fishing and the rest. The weather, except for the occasional hurricane, is great at least nine months of the year, and there's always a beach to escape to. I have a house on the water that would be three times as costly if I lived in, say, California or Florida. Virginia is East Coast, but it's not: It has a Southernness to it, though it's not full-blown. We enjoy good cooking and good manners, but it's not the Deep, Deep South. Now, when it comes to social issues like racism, could it get better? Yes. But Virginians are a wonderful, laid-back people. They respect their neighbors' privacy. I live in the same area where I grew up, and while I may be a little biased, I wouldn't trade my neighborhood, or my neighbors, for anything.
Those people are the reason that, when my career with the Bills was ending, I wanted to play for the Redskins, in front of the home fans. I need only two sacks to break the NFL career record, and it would be great if I could do it with a sack that helps to wrap up the NFC East title at FedExField. I get chills just thinking about how loud the crowd there is and how important the team is to its fans. It'd be a perfect way to give something back to them.
I have a responsibility to speak up and speak out on behalf of Virginia now that I'm one of my sport's ambassadors-like Julius Erving was in his sport all those years ago. It's funny, but I shared that fifth-grade story with Julius, and we both laughed about it. It's amazing how one moment can leave such a lasting impression on someone's life.
But I learned a more important lesson growing up in Virginia, watching my father, who died in 2000, go to his job every day. A chance meeting with an idol can be a big event in someone's life, but the people who are there for you every day—those are the real heroes.