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From the 757 to the NFL

NFL vets Mike Tomlin, Michael Vick and Aaron Brooks can’t wait to see who’s next from the 757

Panel at Hampton emphasized education before football

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former NFL quarterbacks Michael Vick and Aaron Brooks say their allegiance to the 757 community in southern Virginia comes from wanting to give back and see others succeed.

“I want to be accountable as a role model to help these kids dream their dreams,” said Vick, who played for four NFL teams during his 13-year career. He’s best remembered as the six-year starter for the Atlanta Falcons and as a four-time Pro Bowler.

“This is where we’re from,” said Tomlin, who emphasized his goal to inspire, educate and help others in the pursuit of their dreams. He pointed to young football players in the crowd, saying, “I can’t wait to see you guys.”

Jason Reid, (left) of The Undefeated, with the former Saints QB Aaron Brooks, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former NFL QB Michael Vick.

Ashlei Sutton for The Undefeated

The three were part of “From the 757 to the NFL,” an in-depth conversation about football, competition and the pursuit of dreams. It was sponsored by The Undefeated, Hampton Roads Youth Foundation and Hampton University. Thursday’s audience included students, football players and administrators of Hampton as well as youth football teams.

Vick, Tomlin and Brooks all said they were surrounded by negative influences while growing up in the area. Making it to the NFL was their way out.

“[Football] was a vehicle for me and I’m sure for all of us to get out, get educated, do productive things and stay off the streets,” said Tomlin, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.

Still, they refused to forget where they came from. Vick, who once played for Tomlin and the Steelers, emphasized the respect he has for the coach for bringing him to Pittsburgh at the end of his career. “I’m unashamed about my affinity for guys from this area,” said Tomlin. “I tried to get Aaron up there.”

University of Virginia alum Brooks, a member of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, encouraged students to pursue and follow through with their higher education.

“What happens when the ball goes flat? What happens when you get injured?” said Brooks, whose career was ended by injuries. “Education is huge. In a lot of cases, it’s everything.”

Vick, Brooks’ cousin, said he insists on talking about education when speaking to youth. “Academics first. Football is the last thing I talk about, because that’s the easy part,” he said.

All of them also agreed that it is difficult to be African-Americans in the NFL, particularly for QBs, who are often labeled the “black quarterback.”

“Until the day we’re looked at as equals, I think it’s going to be difficult for white Americans to look at us as quarterbacks,” said Brooks. “It’s a stigma that’s been placed on us that we can’t shake.”

Being labeled a “black” head coach also has its problems, said Tomlin. Although there are eight African-American head coaches in the NFL now, the most ever at one time, it’s still seen as abnormal to some.

“We’d better do the job. And, quite frankly, we have to do the job better than our counterparts who aren’t African-American,” said Tomlin.

Vick ended that black quarterback conversation with the message that “at the end of the day, regardless of your color, it’s all about productivity.”

Attendees appeared inspired by the panel’s willingness to give back.

Brooks, Tomlin and Vick getting honorary jerseys

Ashlei Sutton for The Undefeated

“The panel emphasized on education over football, and I appreciated that,” said Jerald Rogers, 22, a recent Hampton graduate.

The three were each given Hampton University football jerseys as thank-you’s from the school. Though none of them went to Hampton, they said they feel connected to the campus.

“It’s important that the panelists talked about how important it is to them to give back to this community,” said Butch Maier, a professor in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. “It’s all about paying it forward.”

Kyla L. Wright is a sophomore journalism major, graphic design minor from Detroit. She attends Hampton University and writes for the Hampton Script.