Sept. 23, 2002
Back to Business
Senior Linebacker Robertson returns from injuries to regain his place in the Cavaliers’ starting lineup.
by Trent Packer
One year ago, University of Virginia inside linebacker Merrill Robertson was fighting his way through an injury-plagued junior season. After making the switch from defensive end following his sophomore year, Robertson was anxious to show his new coaches that he could excel at linebacker in their system. Robertson earned a start in the opening game of the season against Wisconsin, where he recorded five tackles and a sack, before an injury forced him to miss the next two contests. The embattled linebacker struggled through the rest of the season, at times playing through excruciating pain, and at other times watching from the sideline.
“Last year was the first time in my career that I wasn’t able to play,” Robertson says. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, watching the other guys play.”
At the end of the season, Robertson committed himself to an intense rehab regimen. Not wanting to duplicate the disappointments of an injury-laden 2001 season, Robertson became a mainstay in the training room. He spent hours every day attempting to strengthen his ankles and shoulder, in addition to undergoing his regular offseason strength training.
“I concentrated on getting stronger as a football player and getting my ankles and shoulder stronger,” Robertson recalls. “I’ve been ready to play since the beginning of the summer.”
Although last season marked one of the most frustrating periods in Robertson’s football career, the consequences weren’t all bad. He was able to take away from the injuries and the subsequent rehabilitation a newfound love of football and a new respect for players who are forced to compete despite injuries.
“The injuries motivated me in so many ways,” Robertson says. “They made me appreciate football even more. You never really understand what it means to play injured unless you’ve done it. Last year, I tried to play through excruciating pain, and I did it for my teammates. They respected me for that, and now I respect them more than ever [when they have to play injured].”
Robertson returned this season injury free, and has made an immediate impact. Playing alongside fellow senior Angelo Crowell, Robertson started each of the first three games of this season, and has made his presence felt in each. In the season opener against Colorado State, Robertson made nine tackles and recovered a fumble. He followed that performance with a team-leading 11-tackle showing at No. 5 Florida State, and he recorded a sack and caused a fumble in Virginia’s 34-21 upset win over No. 19 South Carolina. He is currently tied for second on the team with 24 total tackles.
In addition to making his return to the Cavaliers’ starting lineup, Robertson’s health has also allowed him to concentrate on imparting the knowledge of a veteran player to the team’s younger athletes. In fact, Robertson has relished his role as a senior on a young team, where helping his teammates learn the intricacies of the Cavaliers’ defense has taken the place of playing through pain.
“It has been a process of molding the team and getting to know each other,” Robertson says of the acclimation process. “As soon as we got on the field, we started putting the pieces together. The freshmen are very easy to work with.
“They came in humble despite their high school [achievements], and I respect them for that. They gave us older guys respect and have listened to us when we’ve tried to help them. We are all teammates now.”
This harmonious relationship has led Robertson and his teammates to believe that they can still accomplish big things this season. Despite a somewhat disappointing beginning, including a pair of early losses to top-20 opponents Colorado State and Florida State, Robertson is confident that this squad can present a formidable challenge to each of its remaining opponents.
“We think we have a chance to run the table,” Robertson says. “We’ve just got to put it back together. We played the No. 5 team in the nation at their place, and they are pretty good. We know we can play with anybody.”
The fact that Robertson, his fellow linebackers and a number of the defensive backs have played together for four years lends further credence to Robertson’s argument. The seniors know what to do on every play, and have absolute trust in each other. “[Angelo] Crowell, Ray Mann, [Shernard] Newby, Jerton [Evans], and I have all played together for a long time,” Robertson says. “I know exactly what Crowell is going to do on every play, and a lot of times I play off of him.”
That trust allows for a great deal of confidence among the seniors, which in turn has started to trickle down to the rest of the team.
“We have so much confidence in each other that, when the safeties make a call, we completely trust them, and when it’s time for the linebackers to make a call, they trust us.”
Not only are Robertson and the other seniors comfortable with each other, they have also adjusted to playing in the defensive scheme first implemented by head coach Al Groh and defensive coordinator Al Golden last season. After spending two offseasons, two preseasons, and one full regular season learning the system, Robertson and his cohorts are well versed in its nuances. That comfort allows the veterans to once again turn their attention to bringing the Cavs’ more youthful players along.
“We feel very comfortable in the system,” Robertson says. “We know everything in the system and we are just trying to make sure everybody knows everything. It is our job as inside linebackers to make sure they get it.
Robertson is primarily concerned with helping the team’s neophytes adjust to the speed of the college game. Not only are the players much faster than in high school, but the speed of the game varies from game to game, meaning it’s of primary importance for the young players to learn to play at a different tempo week in and week out.
“We are trying to get the younger guys acclimated to the game speed,” Robertson says of his responsibilities. “Every team plays at a different speed. As older guys, we know how to adjust to the different speeds, but it’s harder for the younger guys.”
Regardless of what Robertson may have to do to assert his leadership, and no matter how hard he may have to work to continue to excel, he knows from personal experience that spending time on the field is certainly preferable to watching from the sideline.
Virginia’s Fabulous Freshmen
by Cathy Bongiovi
Taped and dressed, the players were ready to go. The white smoke started to drift from the locker room door up into the stands. The Cavalier strode down the tunnel and onto the field. The crowd was on its feet, clapping and cheering. It was time…time for the Virginia football team to take the field at the stadium for the first time in 2002.
For the freshmen, there were plenty of butterflies.
“I felt excited and relieved that (training) camp was finally over,” defensive end Kwakou Robinson shared. “I felt a lot of things; I felt the anxiety to just get on the field. I felt the adrenaline come through my body. It was a lot of different emotions at one time.”
“All those people out there to watch you,” tailback Wali Lundy added. “It was the atmosphere that made me the most excited more than anything.”
“It definitely was a wonderful experience, very emotional,” described tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. “When you see the crowd of 60,000 plus, it definitely has an impact on you, and you know that it’s no longer high school football. You’ve graduated to the next level.”
And graduated they have. A year ago, one-third of the 2002 Virginia football team was still in high school.
Arguably the youngest squad in the nation, Virginia has tested its youth right out of the gate. Through its first three games this fall, UVa has utilized 13 true freshmen, five as starters, and five red-shirt freshmen against the likes of Colorado State, Florida State, and South Carolina.
“A lot of our future is in the development of these players,” said head coach Al Groh. “They have to be exposed to what real college football is all about.”
Three newcomers have started each of UVa’s first three contests.
Ferguson has adjusted well to collegiate football. Playing both sides of the ball in high school, he strives to achieve all of his goals. A blackbelt in karate and an accomplished saxophone player, Ferguson cherishes his time in the starting lineup.
“It’s an excellent feeling, but of course it comes along with a lot of hard work and dedication,” said the 6-5 left tackle from Freeport, N.Y. “Even though it’s great fun, you have to stay focused and pay attention to what you’re doing in the game.”
Punter Tom Hagan of Roanoke, Va., agrees. A graduate from the same high school as former Cavs Tiki and Ronde Barber, Hagan also intends to play baseball in the spring.
“To be able to come in as a first-year and step into a role someone else had last year,” Hagan said of his starting role, “it’s very fulfilling to know that you’re a part of the team right off.”
Robinson, from Brooklyn, N.Y., has made a positive impact on the defensive line, registering 15 tackles in his first three starts.
“I’m getting the experience that no one really gets as a freshman, which will allow me to be good next year and know just what’s going on,” said the 2001 Gatorade Player of the Year in New York.
Highly-touted tailback Lundy has led UVa’s running game thus far. The former prep track standout leads the team in rushing and all-purpose yardage through three games. He also hails from a football family as two of his older brothers play college football- Jamaal (22) at Connecticut and Mikal (20) at Kent State.
“You work hard in practice, and you try to get the start,” said the Willingboro, N.J., native. “When you do, it makes you feel real good. I just try to go out there and play my hardest.”
In his first collegiate game, Lundy ran for 94 yards and caught two passes en route to the first ACC Rookie of the Week honor of the season.
Outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock knows how prestigious it is to be a starter.
“It’s not given to you; you have to earn it,” said the 6-4 product from state champion Heritage High School in Newport News. “I’m proud of myself, but everyday is a battle to maintain it.”
Coach Groh seems pleased with the progress his freshmen have made in the first few weeks of their collegiate careers.
“As hyped up as this group was, I think the talent level is every bit as good as it was supposed to be,” Groh said.
“The biggest thing is just staying focused from day to day and just taking in whatever you can from your teammates and from the coaches,” added Alvin Pearman, who played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2001. “As a freshman, there’s a whole lot to learn out there. Football’s a big game, and there’s no one who has mastered it.”
“In high school you can take some time off from practice and relax,” Pearman said of the intensity. “But in a competitive environment like this one, you have to give it all you’ve got- 110 percent in every game and in every practice.”
These true freshmen may be young, but they have the drive and dedication to give Virginia that competitive edge.
“We’re still out there, like everybody else, working hard to play,” Hagan concluded.
Cool under pressure…
by Joshua Phelps
For Mike Eck, pressure situations have never seemed to be a problem. Whether as a red-shirt freshman quarterback for a new coach in a rebuilding program or as a banker wading through the grueling rigors of Wall Street, he has always found a way to maintain high standards of success.
Heavily recruited out of Pittsburgh, Pa., in high school, Eck chose to attend the University of Virginia in spite of the football program’s lack of recent success at the time.
Eck explains, “I chose Virginia because of one, the academic standards of the school, and two, I absolutely wanted to be part of the rebuilding process. I had opportunities at more established programs but those two qualities put Virginia above all of those.”
Eck’s teams did encounter more success than those preceding them. He credits then UVa head coach George Welsh’s arrival as the catalyst that began putting numbers in the win column for Virginia.
“I think Coach Welsh’s approach and philosophy dramatically changed the overall tone for the program. While the successive coaches had started a rebuilding process, George Welsh really took it to another level in terms of commitment, recruiting and the expectations that we had as players and as a team,” says Eck.
Virginia’s football program was not the only thing flourishing, as Eck garnered All-ACC Academic honors in 1982.
“Virginia provided an environment for me to flourish academically,” says Eck. “Within the football program, you were trained to be disciplined not only as an athlete but as a student too.”
Eck’s academic prowess has led him to considerable success in investment banking on Wall Street. An employee of Citigroup/Salomon Smith Barney, one of the largest and most successful investment banks in the world, Eck is both a group head of a franchise as well as a member of the management committee.
“The University of Virginia provided me with an unbelievable foundation for my career,” says Eck. “I would like to see my company be even more successful in the recruitment of students from the McIntire School as well as Darden. Being on Wall Street, you hear a lot about the University of Chicago, Penn’s Wharton School, and Harvard. I’m tired of it, because I know the University’s programs are truly second to none.”
Eck was able to take time away from his hectic business and family schedule to attend a celebration for Welsh this past spring. Connecting with many former teammates and coaches, he was thoroughly impressed with the improvements in Virginia football over the past two decades.
“It was fantastic to come back and see the progress that has been made on a facility basis, an athlete basis, and in the overall commitment that the Unversity has to the program,” says Eck. “It was also great on a personal note to reconnect with [current and former] coaches, players and staff who have played important roles in the program. Ed Henry, Tom Sherman, Dr. McCue, and Joe Geick…we’re talking 20-plus years of service and that is just a wonderful testament to the quality of those people.”
Reminiscing over the past and talking with former members of Virginia’s program may be the extent of Eck’s involvement in football these days, but he is still an avid athlete. He now focuses on competing in triathlons instead of sprinting away from defensive ends. Eck is able to train for and compete in about 10 to 12 triathlons a year while devoting the remainder of his spare time to his wife and three children.
Eck makes it highly evident that his experiences as a student-athlete at Virginia have helped him to live a rewarding life, both at home and in a competitive industry.
“I would say that you don’t really gain a proper perspective until you’re out and away from Virginia, meeting the challenges and pressures of everyday life,” says Eck. “It is then I see that no experience prepared me academically, athletically or personally better than [the one I had] at the University of Virginia.”
Hoos in the NFL
From Small Town to Big Time…
by Joshua Phelps
Throughout his football career, Billy Baber has consistently managed to transform his small-town dreams into big-time realities. Hailing from Crozet, Va., a stone’s throw from Charlottesville and more commonly known for its lush landscapes and famous pizza than for producing NFL talent, the former UVa football player has emerged as a consistent contributor for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sundays this fall. His work ethic and opportunistic approach to the game have helped him at every level as he continues to build his reputation in the NFL ranks.
Baber began his Virginia career as a backup to tight end Casey Crawford in 1997, before a season-ending injury to Crawford forced Baber into a more integral role.
“When you get to play as a freshman, that gives you the confidence to start and play there (in college) for a while, and hopefully take it to the NFL. Coming from the small town I’m from, that’s really a big thing.”
That “big thing” happened in the spring of 2001 when the Chiefs selected Baber in the fifth round of the NFL draft. He concedes that many adjustments had to be made when he took his game to the fiercely competitive gridirons of professional football and faced the most talented players in the world.
“In college, everyone you play against may not be great, but in the NFL there are no bad players,” Baber says. “Everyone is great, and one of the biggest things for me was getting adjusted to the speed at which the game is played.”
Baber was also forced to prepare his body to endure the rigors of an NFL season that, including the preseason, can be as long as 25 games.
“Two-a-day practices are about two weeks longer than they are in college, and we actually go away to Wisconsin for training camp,” Baber says.
Baber likens the camp process to a “month-long business trip.”
“It’s a lot more competitive when you have guys out there feeding three or four kids this way. Playing in the NFL becomes both a way of life and a job for you; it has to pay the bills.”
Baber was placed on the Chiefs’ practice squad at the beginning of his inaugural NFL season, allowing him to focus on learning the difficult offensive schemes and mechanics of the NFL game. However, he was forced to once again answer the familiar knock of opportunity when the Cleveland Browns attempted to acquire Baber and place him on their roster.
“After playing eight games on the practice squad for the Chiefs, Cleveland called and wanted to put me on their roster,” says Baber. “Kansas City didn’t want to lose me, so they placed me on their roster and I dressed the rest of the season. It was really a great feeling.”
One of the fringe benefits Baber receives by donning the Kansas City uniform is the tutelage he receives from perennial pro-bowler Tony Gonzalez. Approaching his backup role realistically, Baber relishes his chance to learn from a player who he considers one of the best, if not the best, players playing the game today.
“To say Tony is the best, I may be going out on a limb,” says Baber, “but when a tight end catches 100 balls a year, it’s just unheard of.”
“He’s really helped my game,” Baber continues. “I’ve gotten to see his techniques, the crispness of his routes, and I try to mimic him. Why not be like the best? When we go to work, I’m not there to take his job but to push him and let him know that I’m there, which helps both of us get better.”
This season, Baber can expect to not only dress for every game but to play an integral role as a contributor on special teams.
“It’s not bad,” says Baber. “You get to dress out, be on the field, and do everything that comes with being in the NFL. As far as playing tight end, whenever Tony comes out I’ll go in depending on the situation…although it seems like he never comes out,” Baber laughs.
While Baber toils in the Midwest and Big 12 country these days, he hasn’t forgotten his roots back in central Virginia. He still recalls fond memories of his ACC career and the camaraderie he shared with friends and teammates.
“I think one of my favorite memories is my sophomore year when we were real good,” says Baber. “We had Anthony Poindexter, Wali Rainer, Thomas Jones and Aaron Brooks, and [were ranked as high as sixth in the country in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll.]
Baber considers that season bittersweet, however, noting, “The loss to Georgia Tech when we were up 35-0 was one of the worst losses of my life, but we went on to do pretty well and make it to the Peach Bowl.”
Although his collegiate playing days are over, Baber has managed to stay in touch with many of his former Cavalier teammates, including his hunting and fishing buddies Chris Luzar and Casey Crawford, both of whom have also played in the NFL. “Chris was in my wedding, and Casey [was there too],” says Baber. “I also stay in touch with Mike Abrams, Evan Routzan, and Jared Woodson, all of my former roommates.”
Perhaps the best way Baber has been able to keep in touch with his hometown roots is by being happily married to his wife, Sara. Like Baber, she is from Crozet and attended UVa.
Still a newlywed when he left for NFL training camp this year, Baber credits Sara with supporting him and his dream while speaking highly of the married life.
“I love it,” says Baber. “Having just gotten home from training camp, I feel like I’ve only been married for two weeks so I’m just starting to enjoy it. It’s so nice to have someone to come home to, especially since she is just a wonderful person who helps me out an awful lot.”
Baber’s drive to succeed coupled with his knack for seizing opportunity and helping himself will most certainly propel his NFL career, assuring that this big man from a small town will continue to do big things.