GameDay Magazine Features
Sept. 9, 2002
Record Breaking McMullen is Leading by Example
by Chip Rogers
For returning All-America wide receiver Billy McMullen, topping his accomplishments from a year ago won’t be easy. Not only did the 6-4, 208-pound wideout lead the ACC in nearly every receiving category last season, but also he had a hand in several of the most unforgettable plays in school history. He might be best remembered for his lateral to Alvin Pearman as part of the “hook and ladder” play that gave the Cavaliers the 39-38 lead against #20 Georgia Tech last year that won the game for the ‘Hoos. Of course, he also can be memorialized for his remarkable catch to put Virginia up by two at 26-24 with one second on the clock as the ‘Hoos defeated #19 Clemson in Death Valley for their first ACC victory in 2001.
There is no question that McMullen had an explosive season as a junior and set himself up for a possible trip to the big leagues in 2002. Leaving early for the NFL, though, was not a part of McMullen’s plans. “I wanted to win,” said McMullen, “and I know that we have the team here at Virginia that can win.” The Cavaliers closed out the 2001 season with a win over Penn State, and McMullen is ready to continue that trend. “I want to be on a team that dominates,” added McMullen. “A goal of ours is to go to a bowl.”
A good deal of that responsibility will fall on McMullen’s shoulders, but he has the skills to back it up. According to Virginia wide receivers coach Mike Groh, “McMullen’s work ethic and competitiveness combined with his being an outstanding person make him a special player. He has worked hard to get ready for this year,” added head coach Al Groh. “Physically and mentally, he has prepared for this season.” One might ask what else McMullen can do to improve on a school-record, ACC-leading 83 catches and an All-America citation from last year. McMullen is not content to rest on his past laurels, however. Always looking for ways to improve, he says, “I’ve gone in and studied film. I watch my running after the catch; I study my blocking responsibilities. There is always something I can do, because when I start to think that I’ve done enough, that’s when it starts getting away.”
In 2001, it was McMullen who got away from the opposition’s coverage, smashing the Virginia season record for receptions in a season while leading the ACC by a wide margin. He also became Virginia’s career leader in pass receptions with 141, passing John Ford’s 128 from 1984 to 1988. McMullen also ranks fifth all-time at Virginia in career reception yardage with 2084 yards, just 420 behind all-time leader Herman Moore. In 2001, McMullen had 1060 yards receiving, so he is well on pace to pass the career numbers Moore put up from 1988 to 1990.
The records and the statistics, though, are of little importance to McMullen compared to the numbers in the win-loss columns for the Cavaliers. “If we are winning, then my numbers don’t matter,” said McMullen. “I need to make my touches count big, and as long as I am doing what I need to do for my team to win, then I’m doing my job.” McMullen’s responsibilities will extend a little bit beyond catching the ball this year as he was named a co-captain for the 2002 season (along with senior linebacker Angelo Crowell). “I was very honored with the selection,” said McMullen. “I have a responsibility to both my teammates and my coaches as captain, and I am looking forward to it.”
“As a captain we’ll get to capitalize on another part of his abilities,” added Groh. “[McMullen] is already a person who leads by example. He gets on the field and gets the job done. This season as a captain his vocal leadership will become more important.” McMullen will continue to have a major role on the field this year, but expect that he will be a marked man. While his success last year did not go unrecognized by the awards committees, neither did it go unnoticed by this year’s opponents. “I expect to see more coverage,” commented McMullen. “But we have lots of people who can step up to help the team succeed, including [Michael] McGrew, [Ottowa] Anderson, and [Patrick] Estes,” he said of the trio which combined for 46 catches and 447 yards in 2001, but McMullen is undeterred. “We have lots of guys who can catch. The strength of our offense is a balanced game, and we have young guys who can contribute.” The Cavaliers have a chance to demonstrate this balance and depth in the first collegiate football game in the 2001-02 season as they host Colorado State on August 22. McMullen relishes the idea of playing in the first game of the season. “We get to showcase what we can do early on. I’m excited that we are starting with two good games,” added McMullen. “If we are going to be a ‘big dog’, then we have to beat the ‘big dogs’.”
Individually, McMullen already is a “big dog.” The first Cavalier wide receiver named an All-American since Herman Moore in 1990, McMullen is on track to etch his name deeper in Virginia history. “What makes him excellent are his ball skills,” says Groh. “He’s able to rise above his defender, create depth, and catch the ball with his big, strong hands. I think he is the best receiver in the nation, and certainly a goal I have for him is to win the Biletnikoff Award [which goes to the nation’s best receiver].” McMullen does not shy away from that goal, but the bigger aim for him is to get the team back to a bowl and thus have a winning season. It’s a goal that befits a captain, and one that McMullen is dedicated to achieving. “I came back to be a part of a winning season,” he says. Regardless of how the 2002 Cavalier girdiron season unfolds, McMullen has already etched his name soldily in Virginia football history.
Remember Hoo: Nick Merrick
by Joshua Phelps
Nick Merrick relished his role as wide receiver during the rebirth of Virginia football in the early eighties. Now a prominent Dallas businessman, he proudly credits his years at the University and his involvement in the football program for instilling the work ethic and discipline that he has demonstrated over the years.
Lettering four-years, Merrick made significant contributions throughout his career at Virginia. Merrick led the team in receiving yards during the 1982 campaign, and he still stands among the Cavalier’s top 20 career receivers in yardage and top 10 single-game receiving leaders. He is particularly proud of his two All-ACC Academic awards which demonstrated his commitment to excellence in the classroom.
“Growing up in Pittsburgh, I wanted to go to school away from home that offered a combination of great academics, great tradition, and the opportunity to play football,” says Merrick. “My parents had always stressed education, and focusing on football at Virginia put me in the right mindset to do well. Uva allows someone to try hard not only as an athlete but as a good student as well.”
The discipline and focus Merrick learned at Virginia has served him well after he received his finance degree from the McIntire School of Commerce.
“The best thing about football, or any team sport, is that you learn how to work with other people in accomplishing one or two primary goals,” says Merrick, “which is critically important in anything you do. You also have to be tremendously disciplined during the season and spring ball in order to maintain a schedule that works for you, which is necessary throughout your life.”
Merrick successfully utilized this ethic as an investment banker in Atlanta following his graduation and later at Harvard Business School. He has since served as CFO of several companies and now resides in Dallas, TX as a successful money manager.Merrick also looks back fondly on his years in the orange and blue because of the opportunity he was given to be part of a new era in Virginia football, culminating in the 1984 Peach Bowl Victory over Purdue.
“Coach Welsh was great at building a new program. He hired good assistants and was a good judge of a style of play that would fit his personnel well,” says Merrick.He also praises the determination, talent, and heart of his teammates during his career.
“Coach Welsh had always been a winner, both at Penn State and Navy, and was very focused on what it took to have a winning program,” says Merrick, “but he also inherited some very good players whose hard work were real keys to turning around the program, and complemented them with good recruits.”
He mentions Jim Dombrowski, Lester Lyles, and Ron Mattes, just to name a few.Merrick’s memories of the 1984 season and ensuing Peach Bowl victory is enough to bring chills to anyone who has followed Virginia’s gridiron endeavors.
“As far as the Peach Bowl goes, I don’t think that even if Uva had won the national championship this year it could have been as exciting as our Peach Bowl victory,” says Merrick. “For us, we did real well that season with no expectations and it was incredibly exciting. After our win at the Peach Bowl, every single person in town with any Uva ties was at our hotel celebrating for hours. It was pure fun and unabashed excitement, and it was the first time we’d achieved that level of success.”
He equates his feelings that day to what the 1995 Virginia squad must have felt after their triumph over Florida State.
Merrick makes his home in Dallas, Texas, with his four children and wife of thirteen years, whom he met in the Commerce School.
“I am still involved in sports,” he says, “although most of that comes in the form of coaching my children.”
Merrick is also very pleased with the fact that he is normally able to make it to one or two games a year and is welcomed with open arms by the Virginia football family.
“Having the relationships I’ve had with the assistant coaches over the years and guys like Gerry Capone and Tom Sherman, they really you feel like you’re a part of it,” says Merrick when discussing his visits. “Knowing people like athletic directors Barry Parkhill and Terry Holland helps you maintain your affinity for the Virginia program because they are such great guys.”
Merrick speaks just as highly of the entire Virginia community.
“Living in one of the best public school districts, you see people working hard to get to Uva and other public schools like it,” he says. “The University just has a great reputation for attracting people who are smart, social, and altogether well-rounded, and being part of that has served me very well.”
“I also think that one of the best legacies George Welsh has is how he made his first groups of players feel. I’m very proud to tell people that I’m part of Uva football, that I helped turn it around, and that’s something that I’ll carry with me throughout my life with a great sense of accomplishment and pride. Being part of that community has been an incredible asset all of my life.”
‘Hoos in the NFL: European Style
by Scott Quarforth
In 1991, the NFL gambled by venturing into the soccer-dominated world of European sports and introduced the NFL Europe. The first American football game was played in Frankfurt, Germany, in front of a crowd of more than 23,000 between the hometown Galaxy and the London Monarchs. Since then, teams have come and gone, but after 11 seasons there remain six teams; the Berlin Thunder, Frankfurt Galaxy, Rhein Fire, Amsterdam Admirals, Barcelona Dragons, and Scottish Claymores. During the 2002 season, four Cavalier alumni, Dwayne Stukes, Ahmad Hawkins, Yubrenal Isabelle, and Dustin Keith found themselves a part of this international football scene.
Second-year veteran Dwayne Stukes played for the 2001 and 2002 NFL Europe Champion Berlin Thunder. Stukes was a three-year letterman at Virginia from 1997-1999. During his senior year, Stukes played in eight games, recording 17 solo tackles.
Playing along side Stukes during the Thunder’s 2002 championship run was first-year rookie Ahmad Hawkins. Hawkins lettered three seasons at wide receiver for Virginia from 1997 to 1999, before moving to cornerback his senior year where he led the team with four interceptions and earned second-team All-State honors.
He will be remembered best by Cavalier fans, however, for his late game heroics against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in 1998. His 97-yard touchdown reception with just over two minutes to play sealed a remarkable 36-32 come from behind victory over the Hokies as UVA rallied from a 29-7 halftime deficit.
Both Stukes and Hawkins play cornerback for the Thunder.
Linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle played his first year in Europe with the Scottish Claymores. Isabelle played at Virginia from 1997-2001 and had a standout senior year, leading the team with 128 tackles and breaking up a team-high five passes, including three during a 31-23 win over Maryland.
Second-year veteran center Dustin Keith played for the 2002 championship runner-up Rhein Fire. At Virginia, Keith was a reserve on the offensive line until he moved to center his senior year in 2000, starting all 12 games.
On June 22, Stukes and Hawkins shared the experience of being a part of a championship caliber team as the Berlin Thunder won their second consecutive World Bowl title outscoring Keith’s Rhein Fire 26-20. It was Stukes’ second consecutive World Bowl ring and Hawkins’ first. “We [the Thunder] won last year and had a better team this year, I was confident that we could repeat as champions,” Stukes said.Hawkins echoed his teammate’s excitement about getting to the championship game.”It was a lot of fun and a different experience than I have ever had in football,” Hawkins said.
Although Keith lost to his former Cavalier teammates, he still enjoyed the experience and the thrill of playing on such a grand stage.
“Just getting out into the game and playing was exciting. You have to take it all in as one big experience,” Keith said.
American football in Europe has enjoyed less exposure and fan interest when compared to the immense popularity of European football [soccer]. However, players are still recognized by the most loyal of fans.
Former Cavalier standout Isabelle mentioned that the European fans’ knowledge of the game is different and as a player, one must be willing to teach the rules of the game.”As fans’ knowledge of the game continues to grow, the recognition and appreciation quickly follow. [The status of American football in Europe] allows you to be more focused and, only increases your love for the game,” Isabelle said.
“We just need to give the fans time to get used to a different game,” Stukes added.Keith said he has noticed when a European city’s soccer club is not successful and their league status drops, there is an opportunity for the NFL Europe team to gain in popularity and fans.
“In D?sseldorf, where the Rhein Fire play, the soccer club level has gone down…so the fans are really starting to support Rhein Fire,” Keith said.
These former Cavaliers turned NFL Europe stars have found they love taking the time to sign autographs for fans whenever they are found off the field.
“You can go out anywhere and the fans recognize you, so you are constantly signing autographs. We’re their people and they like to cheer for us,” Keith said.With the season starting in April and ending in mid-June, players are not in Europe for an extended period of time, so traveling home is often not an option. As a result, one of the biggest differences in playing professional football in Europe is living in hotels for the entire season.
“Living in a hotel was difficult at first, but having Dwayne and phone conversations with my mother were key,” Hawkins said.
Isabelle, however, has managed to enjoy at least one perk of his living situation.”You will always miss your own bed and your family no matter where you are, but in a hotel room you come back from practice to a bed that is always made and clean towels everyday,” Isabelle said.
For many players, the transition into European life can be difficult, but according to Isabelle, there are often key individuals who support an NFL Europe rookie during the initial stages of his career in the league.”The coaches have done a wonderful job helping me adjust during the transition,” Isabelle said. “The coaches and veteran players helped me to understand the culture, food, and language differences in Europe.”
For Hawkins, the most helpful veteran player was Stukes. During their days together as teammates at UVa, when Hawkins played offense and Stukes was a part of Virginia’s defense, their relationship was only one of mutual respect. However, since joining the Thunder, these two have become an inseparable pair of cornerbacks. Having already spent the previous season playing in Europe, Stukes was able to assist Hawkins during the transition.
“There is a closeness between us. He [Ahmad] is like my little brother both on and off the field. I know how frustrating it can be trying to adjust not only to playing professional football, but also living in Europe,” Stukes said
Keith found that what helped him most during this transition had more to do with becoming a part of the team.
“As the team traveled to Europe together and completed preseason practice, I began to appreciate the new bond within the team as we learned to live in an unfamiliar culture,” Keith said.
Isabelle, like many other players, views the NFL Europe League as an opportunity to improve his skills and showcase his ability to NFL scouts from the United States.”Time in the [NFL Europe] league has only helped my career. Although I am not sure where I will be heading at the start of training camp, I see the future as very bright,” Isabelle said.
Once the NFL Europe season ended in June, the former Cavaliers returned home to tryout with various NFL teams.
The Washington Redskins signed Keith for the 2002 season, where he will compete for a spot on the offensive roster. Stukes, who will be a free agent at the start of the season, planned to head back to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp and will compete for one of the cornerback spots on the Steelers’ roster. Finally, Hawkins headed to Kansas City to try out for the Chiefs.
“I feel confident about this opportunity because the [Kansas City] coaches have shown interest in my ability to move on the field,” Hawkins said.