The Tall and the Short of It
by Art Stevens
TSL Extra, Issue #19
A favorite mystery novel begins with the sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night."
The author follows with, "I know, I know dadgummit! But it was."
In that vein, we present you with one of the all-time great cliché leads:
Christmas came early for Virginia Tech’s football team.
We know, we know, dadgummit.
But it did.
The Hokies looked under their trees (must be artificial if they’re still up this time of year) and found a couple of exciting, promising wide receivers.
April 20 was the date of Tech’s spring football game. It was also Spring Christmas. What happened that day? For starters, two-time recruit Fred Lee was at the game, and his mother checked the mail at his Harrisburg, Pa., home. The news that Lee had received the necessary test score for freshman eligibility was waiting. After much hand wringing and anxiety, it was official. Lee was in.
That was half of the big payday.
The other came in the form of Michael Malone, the youngest of the two sons of recent basketball Hall of Fame inductee Moses Malone. For a variety of reasons, Malone was still available at that late date. Though Tech was a long way from his suburban Houston home, it was also close in a way. Moses Malone grew up in Petersburg, Va., and there’s plenty of family in the Old Dominion.
Malone decided immediately he wanted to attend Tech, and he’ll do so as a walk-on next season. At that point, he was unsure of his eligibility status, but when he arrived home from his weekend at Tech the good news was waiting. Malone got the necessary number and a lot more. He, too, was in.
In one afternoon, a lot of worry about the receiving position was erased. The current crop of receivers had a pretty good day in the spring game, though there’s still room for improvement. For the most part, they held on to the ball. That was not always the case during spring drills.
Then, two more were added to the mix.
So there. Christmas did come early. Let’s take a look at the two new presents.
A Murky Decision by the Clearinghouse
Lee was not available for comment for this story. It seems that during the time TSLX was trying to reach him, Lee was already on his way to Tech. Eager to get started with his education and his football study, Lee enrolled in summer school. His phone hadn’t yet been hooked up, and his parents hadn’t yet secured a local cell phone for him.
That’s OK. Lee made his feelings about the school clear by twice signing with Tech. Once he didn’t qualify, Lee enrolled at Milford (Conn.) Academy. By then, he was a free agent in need of re-recruiting. He had other places to go. Michigan State came after him hard.
But he signed again with Tech. That says plenty.
Those who know Lee say his struggle to qualify is not a sign that he’s an academic risk. It’s an NCAA Clearinghouse thing.
Lee finished at Bishop McDevitt High with a 2.45 grade point average. He scored a 920 on his scholastic aptitude test. Those aren’t knock down the wall academic numbers. They’re still pretty good, and good enough for freshman eligibility.
So what happened?
Bishop McDevitt football coach Jeff Weachter explained: The school has three academic tracks – basic, academic and honors. Lee was enrolled in academic, which is a college preparatory track. Grades are weighted differently in each track. An "A" in basic algebra for instance doesn’t count as much as an "A" in honors algebra.
That’s not uncommon. Most school systems have a weighted grading scale. That’s how some students end up with a grade point average of more than 4.0 on a 4.0 scale.
In reviewing Lee’s transcript, Weachter said, the NCAA Clearinghouse determined that it would accept weighting for the school’s honors courses. But not for the academic courses.
Lee’s refigured grade point average was a 2.15. Now, he needed 40 more points on his SAT to qualify.
"The shame of it is," Weachter said, "is that Fred was probably more qualified than half the kids the clearinghouse said were qualified. He had already graduated from here, so he couldn’t do anything about the GPA. He went to Milford basically to play football and take some test prep courses.
"He came back here after the semester and went to Sylvan Learning Center for SAT prep. He finally got his required score on the SAT. It was quite an adventure."
On the field, Lee’s two most-recent coaches see nothing but great things ahead.
As a senior at Bishop McDevitt, Lee caught 48 passes for 1,080 yards and 16 touchdowns. Milford doesn’t compile season statistics, coach William Chaplick said.
"But one game definitely stands out, against the Bucknell JV," Chaplick said. "He scored four touchdowns. He had eight catches for 237 yards."
Lee played in the Pennsylvania-Ohio Big 33 All-Star game last summer along with Tech’s Kevin Jones, who was named the game’s MVP. Afterward, Jones said Lee should have won that honor for his five-catch, 135-yard effort. He had a 55-yard touchdown catch and another reception that covered 53 yards.
"Ohio didn’t have anyone who could cover him," Weachter said. "He dominated that game. Obviously the two best players there were Fred and Kevin Jones, and there were a lot of good players in that game."
Weachter said Lee had 38 full scholarship offers.
"Going into his sophomore year, he went up to Rutgers for the Nike Combine and ran a 4.37 for 40 yards," Weachter said. "A lot of people have compared him to a Santana Moss. His best attributes are displayed after he catches the ball. We found some ways to get him in one-on-one situations. One-on-one, you’ll take Fred most of the time."
Said Milford Academy’s Chaplick, "He’s one of the best I’ve seen. When he wanted to play, forget it. He was in his own class. He has some of the best hands I’ve seen and he’s a legitimate 4.3 for the 40. He’s the full package. I wouldn’t want to be covering him."
Lee isn’t big. He’s listed at 5-10, 180 pounds. That, Weachter said, is generous.
"He’s probably somewhere right around 5-9," Weachter said. "Fred can put on some more muscle. Santana Moss wasn’t any taller than 5-9, either. I suppose a really big defender, if he got a very solid hit, could do some damage. You have to get your hands on him first. As fast as Fred is, he’s even quicker. People look at size. I don’t see it being a problem for him."
Tech is a bit more reserved. Call it the Richard Johnson factor. Johnson, who will be a redshirt sophomore, came to Tech from Baltimore with a reputation as an outstanding receiver and the hope remains that he will become one.
But he caught just four passes as a redshirt freshman, a season in which the diminutive Johnson was dogged by injuries.
Tech is excited about Lee.
"They ought to be," Chaplick said. "Everybody in the country wanted him."
The Hokies are also taking a wait-and-see approach.
"He’s awfully good," said a source in the football office. "He has a lot of ‘wiggle’ and can really make people miss. We think he’s going to be good. But it is tough to say if a guy can come in a play right away. He’s not real big."
Weachter thinks Lee is further ahead than most incoming freshmen, not all because he spent a year in prep school. Lee’s brother Shawn is a former Penn State defensive back, so Weachter said Lee knows what it takes to play on a high level.
"The way they talk, he has a shot to play this year if he learns the offense," Weachter said. "The other thing is, he’s a great kick and punt returner.
"Fred is a little more sophisticated than most high school kids coming out. Our pass offense is a little more than most people see. We run a pro style passing offense. He’s been working out with a personal trainer to help him get ready. If anybody can step right in and be able to play, it’s Fred."
The Tall Guy Flies in Low
Michael Malone definitely flew below the recruiting radar in the east.
"You can probably say the same thing down here," said Steve Van Meter, Malone’s coach at Friendswood High.
Several factors contributed to Malone being a relative unknown:
"He started for us at defensive back as a sophomore," Van Meter said. "He was our leading receiver [as a junior] when he got hurt. Then he came on and had a great year for us as a senior. He never attended a camp because he was in the rehabilitation process. He didn’t feel like he was in shape to do a good time for those coaches.
"His stock was not that great here, though he did make some ‘Top 100’ lists in Texas. I think if Michael had his test scores at the appropriate time, he would have had a lot of offers. That’s about the only negative thing I can say about him, and that’s not really a negative.
"If he’d taken it in May [of 2001], he might have had a lot more options. But, you know, this is probably where he would have gone, anyway. He’s pretty excited."
Malone said Tech was always in the back of his mind.
"I became a pretty big fan of theirs when Michael Vick was playing," he said. "I knew my dad was from that part of the country. I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to play there."
The recruitment of Malone didn’t start until December, late by anyone’s standards. Receivers coach Tony Ball got in touch with Van Meter and the ball started rolling.
"Coach Ball talked to me about that – he said Tech made a living off guys like this, guys who are a little below the radar," Van Meter said.
Van Meter said Malone caught 46 passes for 805 yards during the regular season. Friendswood played three playoff games, and Malone added another 13 catches for another 237 yards. He had 15 touchdowns total and a long reception of 72 yards.
"He was first team all district and all county, which is a pretty substantial honor, because this county is pretty well loaded with athletes," Van Meter said.
Malone is 6-5, 205 pounds. He said he’s considering trying to play basketball at Tech, too, but knows he can improve at football with increased concentration on the sport. He’s most eager to attack Tech’s weight program.
"That," he said, "can really help me."
Said Van Meter, "In my opinion, Michael is a kid who is going to get faster. You’re looking at a kid who can be a 6-5, 230-pound receiver. Or he can even get up to 250 and play tight end. Just in the work he’s done since the season ended, I’ve seen a difference. When Michael starts spending some serious time in the weight room, it could be unreal."
Moses Malone got by as much with his tremendous work ethic as he did with skill. Michael Malone is also a worker.
"He was instilled in him," Van Meter said. "This is a very good kid. His mom is also a very solid individual. You’re talking about a kid who grew up in a celebrity family, yet he’s very grounded. He was a spark for our team. Everybody likes Michael. I think he’s the type of kid who can go off anywhere and be successful."
Michael’s older brother Moses Jr. has a year of eligibility left as a basketball player at South Carolina State, so Dad will spend a lot of time next year on the east coast. Watching his sons compete has been one of Malone’s joys in his post-retirement years and he’s resisted offers to get into coaching until they were done.
The elder Malone has made preliminary inquiries into purchasing one of the new suites at Lane Stadium. Whether he does that or not, the Hokies have one very tall new fan.
And two very promising new receivers.