Dwight Freeney and Michael Vick go way back -- all the way to 1999.
I was there too, as the play-by-play voice of Syracuse football, in my first season back at my alma mater. Syracuse was ranked 16th in the country, heading into a game at Virginia Tech. The Orange had six players on defense who went on to play in the NFL, including Freeney, and current Cardinals pro scouting director Quentin Harris. The Hokies had Vick.
The redshirt freshman quarterback lit up Syracuse, leading the Hokies to a 62-0 victory. I had never seen a performance quite like it -- until the following year. This time, Virginia Tech came to the Carrier Dome. The Hokies still managed to win, but this time the game went down the wire. In college, nobody could catch Vick -- except Dwight Freeney. In that game, Freeney sacked Vick 4½ times. Vick hasn't been sacked by the same player that many times in one game since.
After the 2000 season, Vick left Virginia Tech for the NFL, and was drafted number one overall by the Atlanta Falcons. Freeney came back to Syracuse, where he had 17½ sacks in 2001. Despite Freeney's incredible season, there were still doubters. NFL draft projection boards had Freeney going in the late first round. Many thought the Chicago Bears at number 29, would take a shot at the "undersized" Freeney. He was only about six feet tall, and weighed just over 250 pounds. But he was incredibly strong and fast. During Syracuse practices, they used to take him out of drills just so they could try and run offensive plays.
Freeney was always unfairly compared to Julius Peppers, who was 6-7, 280 pounds, and won all of the defensive awards over Freeney in college. No doubt, Peppers was an all-time great player, but Freeney was right there with him. Freeney's NFL career has proven that. The Indianapolis Colts took Freeney with the 11th pick in the first round. I remember being in Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni's office right after the draft. I had just accepted the Arizona Cardinals play-by-play position, and I was telling Coach P that I was leaving. I asked him if he was surprised Freeney was selected that high. He said no. Colts General Manager Bill Polian told Pasqualoni he was going to draft Freeney, because he thought he was a great fit for their defense. Plus, having played on turf in college at the Carrier Dome, Polian felt the transition would be easy to playing on Astroturf at the RCA Dome.
In his rookie season, Freeney finished second in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Freeney had 13 sacks and nine forced fumbles, while the winner of the award, Peppers, had 12 sacks and five forced fumbles.
Fast forward to 2015. Freeney, now age 35, enters Sunday's game with 111½ career sacks and 44 forced fumbles. As he returns to the NFL, he will see a familiar face on the other side of the ball. Michael Vick, also 35, will be starting at quarterback for the Steelers. Neither runs like he used to, but both expect to be the featured stories, as Freeney hopes to chase down Vick again. Whoever gets the upper hand in that matchup may determine the outcome of the game.