By Jeff Schultz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/10/07
The sentencing unfolds in a packed courtroom. It will be dissected on air and in print ad nauseam, catastrophe making for great theater.
The game unfolds in a relative 70,000-seat mausoleum. Thousands of seats will be left empty by blinded fans who stepped in it, mistakenly renewing their season tickets before the indictment, before the guilty plea, before one of the most extreme and tragic falls from grace we've ever seen, or ever will see.
Michael Vick will be sentenced today.
The Falcons will play tonight.
We have lived at this intersection for too long.
"The electricity he brought to the team and the city was like something I had never seen," said Bobby Beathard, who joined the Falcons as new owner Arthur Blank's adviser in 2002. "To make the playoffs that first year, then go to Green Bay and win, you just thought, 'They're going places.' It looked like the Falcons were set up for a long time."
They were set up. Just not the way we thought.
While the Falcons' season winds down, like an old Chevy dropping parts along the highway, Vick will be sentenced in Richmond for creating, funding, operating and lying about a dogfighting operation.
Some fans remain handcuffed to their anger. Others have transitioned into sadness. Both are understandable. No athlete ever had so much, money and power, on and off the field, and threw it away for something so mind-boggling and stupid.
Drug and alcohol problems, at least, could be rationalized as a weakness, even disease. But fighting dogs, refusing to cut ties with street punks you called friends, lying to the man who paid you, as well as the teammates you sweated with and the city of fans who bowed at your feet —- that, you can't rationalize. It's a lethal combination of arrogance and immaturity that could smother any career.
We try to feel sorry for Michael Vick. We try to forgive. But he makes it so hard.
He pleaded guilty on Aug. 27. He made a statement in which he sounded humbled, embarrassed and contrite.
He said: "I will redeem myself. I have to."
Two weeks later, he submitted a urine sample that tested positive for marijuana. It was a violation of the conditions of his release before sentencing —- to say nothing of a violation of pure common sense.
Part of Vick's plea agreement was that he would help federal authorities in other dogfighting investigations. He was given the opportunity to reduce his potential sentence. But if he has helped, it has been kept quite a secret. A recent report indicated government officials don't believe Vick has been forthcoming.
"I need to grow up," he said after his plea. But his level of doesn't-get-it-ness just keeps rising. The birth certificate says 27. The actions say 12.
"I feel sadness for Michael," Beathard said. "Sometimes I'd go back to his locker, and we'd just sit and talk. I liked the guy. He was charismatic, intense and competitive. Michael gave you something. But he couldn't get away from the entourage, the guys he grew up with. That can drain your career. It's just so sad when you think of what he had."
Yes, he had us at hello, as a rookie in 2001. He had us every Sunday. It was exactly five years last week when Vick's 46-yard touchdown run in overtime at Minnesota ignited this city and blew up a nation of highlight shows.
He was a reason to watch. No. He was THE reason to watch.
The Falcons, 16-32 in the previous three seasons, went 7-0-1 in one stretch in 2002, Vick's first year as a starter. They made the playoffs. They went to Green Bay. The Packers had never lost a playoff game at Lambeau Field. They lost that one 27-7. On the first possession of his first postseason game, Vick drove the offense 76 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. He made the Pro Bowl. Only five other NFL quarterbacks had done that in their first year as a starter.
When Vick played, you couldn't close your eyes.
Now, you don't want to open them.
Creditors are lining up. Everybody's suing. His former house is being auctioned off. His former employer wants $20 million back. A team is wrecked. A city is doubled over.
Today he is sentenced.