Welcome back, No. 7: Vick returns to Atlanta
This is a July 10, 2003, file photo showing
Atlanta Falcons qarterback Michael Vick,
right, signing autographs as he leaves the
opening day of the Atlanta Falcons mandatory
two day mini camp in Flowery Branch, Ga Vick
once ruled this city. Fans cheered him. Kids
idolized him. He'll return Sunday under much
different circumstances _ a convicted felon
who's now a little-used backup for the Eagles.
ATLANTA -- Roddy White looks forward to seeing Michael Vick. Just don't expect the Falcons receiver to don another T-shirt showing his support for No. 7.
"I've got to be locked in," White said Wednesday, breaking into a hearty laugh. "This is a big game for us."
No one is quite sure what kind of reception Michael Vick will get when he returns to the Georgia Dome for the first time since serving 18 months in federal prison for dogfighting. After being out of the league for two seasons, the former Falcons quarterback is now a little-used backup for the Philadelphia Eagles (7-4), who face the Falcons (6-5) Sunday in a crucial matchup of NFC playoff contenders.
Far from the spare part he is now, Vick was one of the league's most dynamic players during his six years with the Falcons, leading the team to the brink of the Super Bowl after the 2004 season. Some Atlanta fans continue to wear his No. 7 jersey to games, and one group is even planning a welcome home rally for him outside the stadium.
Of course, there will likely be plenty of boos from fans still appalled at the heinous crimes he committed against animals and how much he hurt the franchise that gave him the richest contract in NFL history.
"I don't really know what's going to happen," Vick said Wednesday at the Eagles' training complex. "I know I still enjoy the city. I'll never forget the fans. I'll always be true to them. Who knows? I look forward to going back and being in that stadium. That's going to be like a dream come true, even though I'm on the opposite side."
White has no such plans for Sunday, and there's been so much turnover on the Falcons' roster that only a handful of players who took the field during Vick's tenure are still around. Among the 22 starters, a mere seven are holdovers from No. 7's era.
"I haven't been thinking about it. It doesn't matter to me," said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who's in his first season with the team. "I know he's coming back. I'm sure there are some people who are going to welcome him and some people that are not. That's not my deal. I'm out there to play football."
But Vick still has friends on the team, including White and another receiver, Brian Finneran. Both have stayed in contact with the ex-Atlanta quarterback.
"We're always texting back and forth," White said. "It's more about life, what's going on, things like that. It's nothing football related."
Have they exchange messages this week? Sure.
"I texted him and said, 'I look forward to seeing you on Sunday,'" White said. "He told me, 'Good luck, get out there and do your thing.' I think I'm going to text him today and ask for the game plan."
The receiver was only kidding, of course, but his feelings for Vick are genuine. He's not defending what his former teammate did away from the field, only remembering the good times they had together.
"He welcomed me here, took me under his wing, got me the ball. How could I be mad at the guy?" White asked. "We're cool, man. Right before he had to go off and do his thing (prison sentence), we used to hang out. We developed a great relationship. We're still going to be friends, regardless of football."
Vick also speaks from time to time with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who supported his former star's re-entry into the league and has continually said he would do anything to make sure he keeps his life on the right track, though he ruled out any chance of Vick ever returning to the Falcons.
"I'll probably give him a call before I get down to Atlanta," Vick said. "We still have that relationship. I always enjoy speaking with Mr. Blank. He's a great guy. He's awesome. He's done a lot of great things for me, things I'll never forget. He's a special person, a person who holds a special place in my heart."
Atlanta broke all ties with its former franchise player by drafting Matt Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in 2008. The rookie won the starting job right away and led the Falcons too a surprising playoff berth.
In an interesting twist, Ryan won't be playing Sunday because of a toe injury and Vick figures to get only a few plays for the Eagles, if his role up to now is any indication. The three-time Pro Bowler has 15 carries for 65 yards and is 3 of 9 passing for 6 yards. He has yet to score his first post-prison touchdown though he came close in last weekend's win over the Redskins, breaking off a 4-yard run to the 1.
Vick would love a chance to make up for his last game at the Georgia Dome, which was Christmas Eve 2006. He had one of the worst games of his Falcons career, completing 9 of 20 passes for 109 yards with two interceptions and running four times for 32 yards in a 10-3 loss to Carolina.
But Vick knows he's not likely to get on the field for more than a few snaps - quite a letdown for a guy who once dominated in the dome.
"This week is going to be a little tougher than average because I played in that stadium," Vick said. "That's where I started my career, and I have so many great memories."
He no longer has the ritzy house in a gated suburban community; that was put on the auction block after he went to prison. But Vick still has plenty of ties to Atlanta.
"The majority of my friends are still there in the city, and who knows if I get a chance to visit with a couple of them? My time is going to be very limited, so who knows?" Vick said.
"The primary focus is on the football game."