Michael Vick opens up to The ATL

Before Michael Vick penned a letter to the city of Atlanta, he was invited back to the Ga. Dome, the house he brought to its feet so many times, for its last game — an NFC Championship Game victory over the Packers that has the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Published on Thursday, 2/2/17, at 8:21 a.m. Eastern.

In one way or another, I’ve been connected to the city of Atlanta for most of my 42 years.

Growing up outside of Tallahassee in Quincy, Fla., in the 1980s, NFL Sundays consisted of the Atlanta Falcons on CBS and the Miami Dolphins on NBC. Our CBS affiliate in Tallahassee also reached into Bainbridge and Thomasville, GA., so we were given the Falcons’ games instead of the Tampa Bay Bucs down in Central Fla.

During this time, Ted Turner’s TBS station was carrying nearly all of the Atlanta Braves games and a decent chunk of Atlanta Hawks’ games. Outside of the national networks carrying Monday Night Baseball and a Saturday afternoon game on the diamond, the only other baseball options on TV were the lowly Cubs on WGN. Likewise, you only had MNF for the NFL and a Sunday afternoon NBA game during the regular season.

My Mom’s sister lived in Atlanta, so my first MLB game was at Fulton Co. Stadium (AKA: The Launching Pad). I made my Aunt sit through a two-hour rain delay. Andre Dawson hit two homers and Bob Horner hit one. Dawson robbed him of another (or at least a double off the wall) with a great catch. The Expos won, 12-2.

My first NBA game? Games 3 and 4 of the epic 1988 Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Celtics and Hawks at the old Omni. The Hawks would win both and Game 5 at Boston before Cliff Levingston didn’t pass the ball to Dominique and missed a lefty hook in the lane in Game 6. The Hawks lost by one and then by two in Larry Bird and ‘Nique’s epic fourth-quarter battle at the Boston Garden in Game 7.

I moved to Atlanta in 1998 fresh out of college from the University of Florida. My first season in the ATL with my Falcons resulted in their first and only trip to the Super Bowl. The city was on fire after the overtime win at Minnesota (thank you, Chuck Smith of ‘Bombsquad’ Fame, for forcing that late second-quarter fumble and Gary Andersen, for missing your only field goal of the season late in regulation).

The Braves were in the midst of (how many damn divisions did they win in a row, anyway? 14? Sure, the Expos might have won it in 1994, but the strike prevented that) total domination at least until October rolled around. Anyway, when my job offer with VegasInsider.com came about in 2000, I reluctantly left Atlanta (for job-reasons only) to move to South Fla.

I was able to talk the bosses in late 2002 to let me move back to Atlanta and work from home. I bought a condo in Buckhead and lived there until late 2009. My return came late in the 2002 campaign, the one in which Michael Vick led the Falcons to a 27-7 win in a snowstorm at Green Bay on Jan. 4 of 2003. It was the Packers’ first-ever home loss in the playoffs at Lambeau Field. Vick’s play left Brett Favre in awe.

Brett Favre offered Michael Vick congratulations after the Falcons handed the Packers their first-ever postseason loss at Lambeau Field in January of 2003.

It was just Vick’s second season and his first as a starter. From then on, he owned the city. I mean, he OWNED it! And the future was so bright for Vick, Atlanta and the Falcons that multiple pairs of shades were needed.

When it comes to Atlanta sports heroes, you talk about Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy, Dominique, Chipper Jones (who was still in his prime in the early 2000s), John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and a few others. However, none of them, not even Aaron, Murph or Nique, were in the same stratosphere as Vick was.

I’ve been saying this for well over a decade now: There are three players I’ve seen on a football field in my life that when they had any sort of daylight whatsoever on a given play, you could just say with 100 percent accuracy… “he gone.”

Those three players would lift you out of your seat whether laying on the couch, sitting on the recliner or in the cheap seats at the stadium. Those three names are Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Vick.

And Vick was a quarterback! Perfect example: THAT RUN at Minnesota in overtime. Perhaps the most electrifying play in Falcons history. (The spread was -3, by the way, so the TD, instead of settling for a FG, meant the spread cover for Atlanta.)

Not only was Vick a black QB, he was the No. 1 overall pick taken in the 2001 Draft at a time when not too many African-American QBs were taken with first-round picks. And it was a time when the vast majority of Atlanta’s population was black. This obviously made Vick’s popularity even greater.

I was there on the night he led Atlanta past St. Louis 47-17 at home on Jan. 15 of 2005 to garner the Falcons a spot in the NFC Championship Game, and the Ga. Dome was as electric as it has ever been.

Vick’s rise to stardom coincided with Arthur Blank’s purchase of the team from the Rankin family. Blank, quite frankly, is the best thing to ever happen to the Falcons’ organization.

Blank created what was called the Michael Vick Experience. Everything about Game Day for Atlanta’s eight home games was about Vick.

You couldn’t go anywhere in The ATL without seeing kids and adults sporting Vick jerseys. There were billboards of Vick all over town — I mean everywhere.

When news of the dog fighting scandal broke in April of 2007, to describe it as a local shocker would be quite the understatement. Vick had a contract worth more than $100 million. He was the face of a franchise and a city.

And the news was trying to tell us that he was the ring leader of dog fighting operation in his native Virginia? What?!

Blank and the Falcons were caught in a no-win situation. Support the franchise icon but simultaneously piss off every dog lover on the planet? Risk alienating a fan base or risk Vick’s insistence of his innocence making the franchise look foolish in the long run?

As it turned out, Vick’s friends rolled over on him and he had no other option than to take a plea bargain. I forget when the Falcons actually released him, but it wasn’t long before he pleaded guilty and was sent to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

During that miserable 2007 season when Joey Freakin’ Harrington became the starting QB and Bobby Petrino quit with three games left on the schedule, there was something different about Atlanta. The racial tension was palpable.

Regardless of innocence or guilt, a certain segment of the black population felt wronged. Not by Vick, but by the Falcons and society in general (again). I don’t even think you can put into words how much the Michael Vick Experience meant to the community. When it was taken, sent to Leavenworth and it was all over seemingly in a split second, it left people angry and bitter.

And that’s the situation Matt Ryan walked into when he was taken with the third pick of the 2008 NFL Draft. When he played at the Ga. Dome those first few years, fans with Vick jerseys on compared to Ryan jerseys was a complete mismatch in favor of No. 7.

Amazingly, Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie. Nine years later, he has them in the Super Bowl, but it took a long time for him to climb out of the long shadow cast by Vick.

As Vick explains, he’s been rooting for Ryan all along. He roots for the Falcons, too.

And for the longest time, he’s been wanting to open up to The ATL. He finally did so yesterday in this story provided by The Players Tribune. It’s worth your time.

As Vick explains in the Players Tribune, he’s rooted for Matt Ryan to succeed all along.

Share this post: