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Oct. 20, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
In sports, we like our favorite records to last a while, but we know most of them have the longevity of the average boy band. So by that standard, Chris Slade's ACC mark for career sacks is classic rock.
Nearly 20 years after Slade played his final game as a Virginia Cavalier, his grip on the record is as firm as the one he administered on quarterbacks to get his spot in history. Of the most recognized individual distinctions--citations for yards and touchdowns in rushing, passing and receiving, interceptions, tackles and the like--Slade's is second in seniority, outranked only by the mark for rushing yardage held by NC State's Ted Brown since disco ruled the earth with a white-gloved fist in 1978.
"I'm sort of glad in a selfish way," Slade, Virginia's ACC Legend for 2011, admitted from his home in Atlanta. "Sooner or later, some guy will stay four years or have three really dynamic seasons and break it."
Since Slade made the last of his 40 sacks in 1992, some other big names have come and gone from various statistical lists in other disciplines. NC State's Torry Holt gave way - after one year - to Peter Warrick of Florida State in receiving yards; Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke of FSU held the passing yardage mark for all of three years before the Wolfpack's Philip Rivers put a claim on it; and Dre Bly of North Carolina was tops in interceptions for a decade until Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest established the new mark.
So why the longevity of this Cavalier, none of whose seasons was cavalier?
Advanced weight training means young linemen don't necessarily have to perform years of apprenticeship before they're ready to play at the ACC level. A cultural shift that often compels high school graduates to move almost immediately onto campus and start summer school brings the weight work into play.
With that combination, many of the most elite players are prepared to put up big numbers early and sniff a college degree a semester or more before previous generations did. Before they're ready to challenge Slade's stats, they're bound for the pros.
Peter Boulware of Florida State and Julius Peppers of North Carolina immediately come to mind as early-entry draft candidates who would have challenged Slade.
"When I read that J.J. Redick finally broke the ACC basketball scoring record, I remember chuckling," Slade said, referencing the fall of a mark that had lasted more than 50 years. "If guys keep leaving school early, I'll never get my record broken. There are some guys who would have had a chance to break (Redick's) record, and maybe that same deal applies to mine."
Nonetheless, the numbers Slade put up would look good in any era. The NCAA didn't begin tracking sacks as an official statistic until 2000, several years after the ACC started the practice. And in past decade, only one man, Terrell Suggs of Arizona State, has surpassed 40. Suggs had 44 in a three-year career that ended in 2002.
For Slade, the other part of the explanation is context.
Slade grew up near a military base in Virginia's Tidewater region, fertile recruiting territory that had been owned by North Carolina and Virginia Tech and others throughout the 1970s. When coach George Welsh moved from Navy to take the Virginia job in 1982, he put his best man on the job, so to speak. An offensive line coach named Tom O'Brien was assigned to patrol Slade's part of the state, and he did so in a manner Slade found endearing.
In those days, there were relatively few limits on recruiting calls. The home phone got a workout.
"The good thing is that my parents were very instrumental and very hands-on in the process," Slade recalled. "When the calls got out of hand, they were there to police it. And that's what struck me about UVa. Coach O'Brien had a first-class approach to it."
O'Brien now coaches the NC State Wolfpack these days after a tremendous run at Boston College.
He also had playing time to sell. Although the Cavaliers had broken through for their first bowl trip in 1984, they weren't stockpiling high school All-Americans at every position. Slade came in with the chance to play right away.
Contrast that to the situation a few years later at Florida State, in which another of this year's ACC Legends, Andre Wadsworth, estimates he was behind a half-dozen future NFL players at his defensive line spot when he showed up as a barely known walk-on in 1993.
"Andre Wadsworth? Yeah, I'd have been worried about him breaking my record," Slade grinned.
Slade, in tandem with other future pros Terry Kirby, Herman Moore and current UVa assistant coach Shawn Moore, changed history at an school once known for famous stewardship (founder Thomas Jefferson) and football struggles (you haven't heard of them.)
Midway through Slade's sophomore season, 1990, Virginia vaulted to No. 1 in the polls for three weeks. There were no BCS crowns to be chased back then, but the excitement from that period is still evident to Slade as he conducts youth football camps and discusses college football as a broadcaster on television and the Virginia radio network.
"You almost felt like a rock star," he said. "Everybody on Grounds knew you--and they--were a part of history. It made me realize why I had come to school there. Whenever I walk around today in Atlanta, I walk with my chest out. People always want to talk about that 1990 game (Watch the game here)."
That November day in 1990 was one of the most important in ACC history. Georgia Tech came into Scott Stadium and shocked the Cavaliers 41-38 on a field goal in the final minute. While the result knocked the Cavs out of the title hunt, it elevated Tech from the second 10 in both polls to instant viability. The Jackets won the UPI (coaches) championship and took second in the AP survey by winning the rest of their games.
As for Slade, he enjoyed a nine-year NFL career that mirrored his college days. The New England Patriots were among the league's bottom-feeders in the early 1990s, but their draft class in 1993 included Slade and quarterback Drew Bledsoe. By 1996, Slade was on his way to a seven-sack season and his team was headed to the Super Bowl. A season later, the Pro Bowl beckoned for the outside linebacker and defensive end.
His head coaches and position-specific assistants included Bill Parcells, Romeo Crennel, Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick and fellow UVa grad Al Groh, who would later return to his alma mater as head coach and who now serves as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator.
"George (Welsh) didn't have much of a personality or relationships with us as players, but we respected him, and he was great on game day," Slade said. "Same with Belichick. Doesn't say a lot, but when he talks, you listen."
Slade graduated from UVa in 1993, juggling NFL workouts with classes in sociological statistics, among other things. He lives with his wife, Talisa, and anticipates relatives from Virginia and North Carolina will make the trip to Charlotte, N.C., for the Legends and other ACC Championship Game events.
The concept of the ACC Championship Game was still more than a decade from fruition when Slade played his final game, and he'd have jumped at such a platform in his Cavalier days.
"Chance to play on a big national stage? I'm glad they're doing it now," he said. "I'd have loved it."
And perhaps authored a sack or two along the way.