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“Not everybody can tell you the specific day that they hit rock bottom,” Michael Vick writes, “but for me it isn’t hard: April 26, 2008. The day my mom had a birthday and my grandma had a stroke. The day the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan, quarterback out of Boston College. The day I lost Atlanta.”
In a remarkable new essay for The Players’ Tribune, Vick comes to terms with the city of Atlanta, the man who replaced him, and the way he lost his identity: Michael Vick, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons.
For the first few years after the millennium, Vick wasn’t just a quarterback, he was an avatar of an entire city. He played the position like no one before him, and his explosive on-field style mirrored Atlanta’s own rise as a city of musical and moviemaking prominence. Vick, Atlanta’s hip-hop stars, the movie celebrities who passed through town — together, they began carving out a new image for a city long derided as “Loserville.”
But then came 2007, when Vick was implicated in a dogfighting ring and sent to prison for nearly two years. Behind bars, he writes, he had three goals: to get out of prison safely, to see his grandmother one more time, and to reclaim his job as quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. Vick was apparently the only person to understand what a foolish, unreachable dream the last one was, and concedes that he had a “blind spot” for the reality.
“I knew the millions of dollars that I had lost, and the value to my reputation that I had lost, and every day was a reminder of the freedom that I had lost. I knew all of that,” he writes. “But in my mind, even from a prison cell, there was at least one thing I hadn’t lost: I was still the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.”
But only until the next draft. Vick was on the phone with his family during the early picks of the 2008 NFL draft. So it fell to a fellow inmate to break him the news. And here, in Vick’s words, is what happened next:
“I know sometimes people will say it’s like they’ve been ‘punched in the stomach’ when something bad happens … but I’d never really understood the expression, until that moment. Matt Ryan. I just kept repeating his name, in my head, again and again. Every time I thought about what it meant, it took the air right out of me — but I couldn’t help it.
“Matt Ryan. As in, the quarterback.
“Before that moment, I didn’t have much. I didn’t have my money … or my reputation … or, worst of all, my freedom. But I did have one thing. I had those five words: Mike Vick, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons.
“And once I heard, Matt Ryan, well … I didn’t have that either.”
It would be understandable for Vick to be bitter about Ryan, but he emphasizes that he found peace with the draft pick in prison, and then afterward developed a friendship with Ryan at former Falcons wide receiver Roddy White’s summer camp. Vick now calls Ryan family, and he’s rooting hard for the Falcons this weekend, and rooting for Ryan, too.
“I felt like it was my fault, like it was my responsibility, that the Falcons franchise had been set back,” he writes. “And if Matt had been a bust … then my guilt over the harm I’d caused the city would have only grown worse. So, yeah, I’m human. It hurt when the Falcons drafted Matt. And for a while there, for sure, I was envious of Matt’s position. But Matt being such a success — that’s been a joy for me. For me, that’s been relief. It’s been peace of mind.”
The Falcons welcomed Vick back to the Georgia Dome at the end of the regular season, and Vick rode onto the field on the back of a convertible with Roddy White at his side. And as they rolled on beneath the cheers of 70,000 Falcons fans, an idea bloomed in Vick’s mind.
“What I wouldn’t give to go out there and draw up one last play. Just one last play, right now, while everyone is here,” he recalls thinking. “What I wouldn’t have given, during that car ride, to just … slide off the back of that drop top, and tell Roddy to go long, and sprint around that turf like I used to, and let one fly.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.