At its outset, the Michael Vick coming-to-Atlanta story was a savory mix of disbelief, wonderment and hope.
Were these the Falcons pulling off a daring, day-before-the-draft coup in the spring of 2001? The same bumbling franchise that seemed indelibly cursed since birth?
HARAZ N. GHANBARI / AP
|Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was escorted to a federal court for his arraignment on July 26, when he would plead not guilty to the dogfighting charges that he accepted a plea deal to on Monday.|
These were the Falcons rewriting their destiny! The lame shall walk, the blind shall see and, miracle of miracles, the Falcons shall possess the most exciting player in football!
Boldly out of character, the team had traded up four spots in the draft to claim the No. 1 overall pick and secure the rights to a quicksilver quarterback from Virginia Tech.
And when the brass convened to formally spend the top pick on Vick, they invited the public to come out to their Flowery Branch headquarters and share in the plunder. They expected maybe 1,500 fans, yet drew nearly three times that many, creating gridlock on the two-lane road leading in. For this wasn't just a draft, it was deliverance.
That was then. This is today:
Vick will plead guilty next week to federal dogfighting charges, his lawyer said Monday. His career in the NFL is shipwrecked, his one with the Falcons rendered a lesson like the Greeks used to employ — Icarus with shoulder pads instead of wings.
As Falcons supporters look back on the arc of the Vick story now, how can they not classify it as the cruelest entry yet in their team's tormented history?
So deep is the disappointment in how this once charmed tale turned ugly that the Falcons general manager at the time of Vick's drafting, Harold Richardson, won't discuss any facet of the rise and fall. Not even the best part of the story, because Richardson knows how it ends. In the road-building business now, he steers clear of human potholes.
Dan Reeves, the Falcons coach at the time, said: "There was a lot of excitement about [drafting Vick]. He was one of the most exciting players I'd seen on film, and I was extremely excited about bringing that kind of talent to Atlanta."
If this is the day to begin the writing of Vick's legacy in Atlanta, then you go back to the spring of 2001 where all that promise was born. At the same time, according to the federal indictment outlining the charges against Vick, beneath the giddiness there was Bad Newz brewing.
". . .in or about May 2001, (Tony) Taylor identified the property at 1915 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, Va. as being a suitable location for housing and training pit bulls for fighting."Right away, Vick was marked financially for greatness. The 20-year-old who had grown up in the Ridley Circle housing project in Newport News, Va., signed the richest NFL rookie contract to that date, with a $3 million signing bonus up front. Money enough to make any dream come true; money that could elevate a family for generations.
". . .on or about June 29, 2001, Vick paid approximately $34,000 for the purchase of property located at 1915 Moonlight Road. . .From this point forward, the defendants used this property as the main staging area for housing and training pit bulls in the dog fighting venture and hosting dog fights."In the context of where Vick was at the time, these passages from the indictment become all the more unsettling. They lay the rails of an unseen parallel track that Vick traveled even while building his name and his fortune. And rather than answer any great questions about his fall, they only make it all the more incomprehensible.
Athletes fail themselves all the time. In the line of great flameouts, Mike Tyson was done in by his reckless libido, Pete Rose by the need for action against the spread, Dwight Gooden by that old standard, drugs.
But who ever heard of a career death by dogfighting? The player who was going to re-invent the quarterback position ended up instead inventing a whole new way to blow it all.
A figurative coach-killer, Jim Mora's famous former-coach father once called Vick, oddly enough not too long before the Falcons fired Mora at the close of the '06 season. But a dog killer, too?
"In or about April 2007, (Purnell) Peace, (Quanis) Phillips and Vick executed approximately eight dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions by various methods including hanging, drowning and slamming at least one dog's body to the ground."The player who admitted to not giving his all in the final game of the 2005 season was now accused of summarily killing any poor, dumb animal that did the same.
Here was an athlete who had stepped into the perfect situation to own a town and a team. True, two seasons before Vick was drafted, the Falcons had gone to the Super Bowl, but even that experience was poisoned when God Squad safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game on vjarges of soliciting an undercover policewoman.
The team won only nine of 32 games in the next two years. By the end of the 2000 season the Falcons' Chris Chandler was the 26th-rated quarterback in the NFL, and the team was dead last in the NFC in total offense.
Vick was Chandler's understudy for the 2001 season, starting two games and stepping in on other possessions just to give opponents a bad case of cottonmouth.
"In or about early 2002, Peace, Phillips, Taylor and Vick established a dog fighting enterprise known as 'Bad Newz Kennels.' "By the fall of '02, he was the man in Atlanta. The Falcons gave Vick the keys to their offense. He was perfect for the SportsCenter highlight culture, capable of summoning the spectacular the way others call for a waiter.
In a December game in Minneapolis, he rushed for 173 yards, a record for a quarterback, including a game-winning 46-yard dash in overtime that seemingly left in his backwash all the Viking defenders tripping over their tongues.
He would be named to his first of three Pro Bowls and engineer a 27-7 thumping of Green Bay in January 2003, the Falcons the first team ever to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in the postseason.
About this time, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino declared, "I would pay to watch Michael Vick play."
On ESPN, Tom Jackson, a former linebacker-turned-analyst, gushed about Atlanta's phenomenal No. 7, "The most athletic player in the league, for the first time in history, is a quarterback. It's Gale Sayers, it's O.J. Simpson, it's Deion Sanders with the ball in his hand every single play."
It seemed the only thing that could stop Vick was the brutality of his day job. During the 2003 preseason, he snapped his leg and would not return until Game No. 12. The Falcons floundered in his absence, but he allegedly found other ways to fill his down time.
"In or about the fall of 2003, Peace, Phillips, Taylor and Vick traveled from Atlanta to South Carolina with a male pit bull named 'Magic' to participate in a dog fight against a male pit bull owned by individuals from South Carolina... The purse for the dog fight was established at approximately $1,500 per side."That was one of three fights that federal documents say Vick attended at roughly the time he was recovering from his injury. His dogs won two of those.
Come 2004, Vick had recovered nicely. He already had enjoyed cover boy status on the wildly popular Madden 2004 football video game. Nike launched its "Michael Vick Experience," ads, in which his style was likened, not inaccurately, to a wild amusement ride. By October, larger than life, he looked down upon stalled commuters on the Downtown Connector from his first AirTran billboard.
Atlanta never had a sporting celebrity with this kind of marketplace reach. Evander Holyfield had worn the heavyweight title, but boxing was so 1970s. Sanders was a two-sport gimmick and as flashy a football player as ever there was, but with one limitation: He wasn't a quarterback.
Vick already was caught up in a tsunami of endorsement money when, near the close of the '04 season, team owner Arthur Blank announced that he was making Vick a Falcon for life. Toward that end, he bestowed upon his star a 10-year, $130 million contract. Vick had hit the ultimate NFL jackpot.
Said Blank then, "I told him today, 'My only disappointment will be if you don't use this as something to build on.' I want to see him invest in the lives of other people."
"From in or about late 2004 through 2005 at various times, Peace, Phillips, Vick and others continued operation of the animal fighting venture at 1915 Moonlight Road and hosted approximately 10 dog fights on the property."These were the best times Vick would know in Atlanta, taking the Falcons as far as the NFC championship game. In jersey sales, only controversial receiver Randy Moss outsold Vick. His offensive coordinator at the time, Greg Knapp, ordained Vick the next big thing — an iPod in a field of Walkman-like quarterbacks.
But then his star began to dim ever so slightly, and he evolved into this polarizing figure long before dogfighting was the issue.
It wasn't just the tawdry incidents that began piling up — the herpes lawsuit, the water bottle episode in Miami, the middle finger salute to the fans after a loss to New Orleans. The returns on the field were diminishing as well. Vick's regular season record as a starting quarterback prior to signing his big deal was 23-12-1. Since, it is 15-16. And to twist the knife a little more, what about the player San Diego acquired with the No. 5 overall pick in 2001 that was the Falcons' before they traded up? Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is the league's reigning MVP.
One part of Vick's life, federal prosecutors allege, remained constant.
"On or about April 25, 2007, Peace, Phillips and Vick possessed various items associated with the continued operation of the dog fighting operation at 1915 Moonlight Road, including sheds and kennels associated with housing the fighting dogs and hosting dog fights; approximately 54 American pit bull terriers, some of which had scars and injuries appearing to be related to dog fighting ... a rape stand ... a 'break' or 'parting' stick used to pry open fighting dogs' mouths during fights ... treadmills and 'slat mills' used to condition fighting dogs."For someone with Vick's wealth, there was a world of legal delights to select from. He could command the lights of Vegas, the beaches of Barbados, the cafes of Paris. Yet here he stood at age 27, seven years into a prosperous career, his wealth and his popular appeal teetering on the basest of charges and this inventory of medieval torture tools. He had come so far, yet made no headway at all, perhaps undone a few miles from the Ridley Circle projects, at the house on Moonlight Road.
When Vick showed up for an off-season training session at the end of May with his trademark braids gone, that was so much more than a statement of fashion. It was the symbol of a once limitless career shifting fully to survival mode.
Vick had promised in 2004 not to cut his hair until he had led the Falcons back to the Super Bowl.
But that promise, along with so many others, was in pieces now. And he had to get presentable for his days in court.