ATLANTA – The ex-con and cautionary tale was on the wrong sideline, wearing the wrong colors (Philadelphia Eagles green and white, not Atlanta Falcons red and black). The No. 7 was familiar though and so was the passion of the Falcons fans.
"We want Vick," they chanted. "We want Vick."
Eagles coach Andy Reid isn't sure he's ever handled such a request – the opposing fans begging for a player to play? Nevertheless he obliged. In went Michael Vick(notes), onetime face of the Falcons franchise until he nearly killed his career killing dogs.
Vick already had been named the Eagles' game captain. He'd already had a pleasant meeting with his former boss, Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He'd already gulped with emotion as the Eagles' plane landed at Hartsfield-Jackson International, and when the team bus sailed past a city landmark he'd come to know during his six years here.
Vick already had shed a tear on the ride over to the game. He'd already made two hard runs in the first half and scored a tough rushing touchdown in the third quarter, each play making the cheers grow louder than the boos.
But this was more. This, he'd say, meant everything.
"I heard the chant," Vick said. "It sent chills down my spine."
Soon Vick was rolling left and completing a 43-yard pass. Three plays later he connected on a five-yard touchdown, the Eagles' final score in a 34-7 shellacking of the Falcons.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," Vick said. "This is one moment I won't forget."
In the bizarre, tabloid career of Michael Vick, this was the latest unpredictable chapter – the most unlikely Old Timer's Day ever. Once the highest-paid player in the league and the most popular athlete in Atlanta, Vick tossed it all away with a hobby almost no one understands.
His role in a brutal dogfighting ring out of rural Virginia sent him to prison for 18 months, cost him two NFL seasons, all his endorsement deals and what was left of a $100 million contract.
Yet the connection between Vick and Atlanta is powerful. The memories linger; the good times, for most, quickly recalled. Vick and the city weren't always a perfect marriage, but it was an enduring one. The city was him. He was the city.
So despite all that he's done and all that he's cost so many, thousands of Falcon fans wanted to treat his return to the Georgia Dome like the time the Red Sox golf-carted Ted Williams around Fenway one last time. This was the NFL's version of the return of the prodigal son.
"We still love him and we support him through the good times and the down times," said fan Cortez Jones of Atlanta, standing pregame in the courtyard outside the Dome. "We don't condone the killing of those animals, but it's time to forgive."
Up and down the pregame tailgates was a sea of Vick jerseys. From the lots near the railroad to the parking garages on the side, fans were there to remind Michael Vick that they supported him. Some came just for this game. Others were long-time season-ticket holders.
They stood among the smokers and beer coolers in their black and red No. 7 jerseys. They had to dust them off a back shelf in the closet since Vick hasn't played in Atlanta since 2006, and it was amazing how many fans had kept them at all.
It was an unusual homecoming. None supported his behavior. Few blamed the Falcons for dumping him. Only a couple wanted him back. And many more hadn't forgiven.
But most wanted to remember. Remember the electrifying kid out of Virginia Tech who gave life to this slumbering franchise. Remember the NFC playoff win at Lambeau Field. Remember the way he moved in the open field, pump-faking passes before whipping by flat-footed linebackers like no one had ever seen done.
He's a football player. That's all they really want him to be.
"He's paid his debt to society," said Sherie Stanley of Fayetteville, Ga. "Everybody deserves a second chance."
Vick is greeted by fans before the game.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
And so on Sunday, Vick got it – on his old stomping grounds no less. His teammates knew he was nervous. Reid tried to ease the mood by predicting (accurately, it turned out) this week that Vick would account for two touchdowns. He then made him game captain and got him first-drive reps, with the full-blessing of starting QB Donovan McNabb(notes), just to ease the tension.
"Everybody felt it," Reid said.
At the beginning Vick heard plenty of boos – "50/50," he said. But by the time the game was out of hand and he was flying around the field like he once did, the remaining crowd was his.
Later he'd take time to visit with former teammates and Falcons organization employees. He was part of a postgame, mid-field prayer. He did interview after interview with Atlanta television. He couldn't stop smiling. He tried to find a lesson in it for anyone, especially kids, going through tough times.
"Things may be hard, but we have to persevere," he said. "If you keep pressing forward, eventually things are going to happen for you."
He's not the starter. He's not a star. He's a backup, forever more famous for his lows than his highs. That isn't going to change. The good old days are never coming back. For so many people, Vick's crimes are too horrific to forgive or forget.
But for an afternoon it was 2004 on the field: Vick lighting up Atlanta, a guy doing his best to rebuild his life while giving a glimpse of what he once had. That, alone, he said, was enough.
"I'll never forget the day that I came back to the City of Atlanta."