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Where the players play: Growing up during the Michael Vick era

Vick’s style on the field seemed to match the personality of the city. It was free-flowing, spontaneous and, most importantly, exciting. 

Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Few players in Atlanta sports history are as compelling or divisive as Michael Vick. Once the most electric player in the NFL, Vick’s legacy around the league and within the city changed following his arrest. But I’m not here to re-tell that story, I’m here to elaborate on the impact he had on a young Atlanta fan who grew up watching No. 7.

Bleacher Report released its anticipated “Vick” documentary on July 11. The 5-part series chronicled the Newport News product’s rise to fame, his fall from glory and his path to redemption. Upon watching the documentary, a few different thoughts crossed my mind. First, I was stricken with a sense of nostalgia for an athlete and a Falcons’ era that held so much promise – neither of which was fully recognized. Second, memories of the various Vick moments I celebrated and cheered came flooding back. Finally, I was disappointed by how little they portrayed his time and impact on Atlanta – a period that still lingers over the city.

In Chapter 3 of the documentary entitled “Icon,” there is a quote from former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. “Atlanta was the bed of hip-hop, beautiful women, it was just the place you go to enjoy,” he said. “And, Mike was the face of Atlanta. And, to be honest with you, still is probably the face of Atlanta.” This quote struck me as a little bit odd, because as much as he was The Star during his time with the Falcons, some people talk about Vick as though they are ashamed to have embraced him.

Think about the number of true superstars the city has been able to claim since Michael Vick was drafted by Atlanta in 2001. The only two who are worthy of belonging in that category are the Joneses – Chipper and Julio. But while each displayed their brilliance on the field, neither were/are transcendent in the way Vick was. His style on the field seemed to match the personality of the city. It was free-flowing, spontaneous and, most importantly, exciting.

Now in the Matt Ryan era, the Falcons have enjoyed unprecedented success. The franchise achieved back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 2008 and 2009 and made four playoff appearances in a five-year span. Despite the highs, however, the team has never been able to recapture the electricity felt when Vick had the ball. For the duration of his career, fair or not, Ryan has always had the shadow of Vick looming over his shoulder. The former may be the better quarterback, but the latter was the more exciting football player.

As a young child growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta – I was eight the year Vick was drafted – I was enamored with the game-changing quarterback. My family had season tickets to the games, and I sat wide-eyed as Vick seemingly moved at twice the speed of anyone else the field. I watched him take a three-step drop, flick his wrist and send the ball 45 yards down the field to Alge Crumpler, Peerless Price or a young Roddy White – coaxing the Georgia Dome into a frenzy.

My childhood is filled with sports memories that Vick made possible. I remember watching him help Atlanta become the first team to defeat Green Bay on the road in the playoffs (against peak Brett Favre, no less!). I was in attendance for the 2004 playoff rout of the St. Louis Rams and cried when the Falcons lost, again, to McNabb’s Eagles.

My favorite in-person sports moment came direct from Vick’s ability to create magic out of nothing and send a game against Carolina into overtime during the 2004 season. On what could have been the team’s final play, Vick scored a 12-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal to tie the game at 31 and eventually snap the Panthers’ five-game win streak.

These types of exhilarating displays led to a white kid from East Cobb always wanting to play quarterback in pick-up football games and scrambling around the backfield before every pass. It was a time in my life when I was too young to pay attention to off-field stories and controversies, all that mattered was his ability to unite a city on Sundays, usually on a national stage. Oh, and his sweet shoes that I totally got as a Christmas present one year.

Oh, yeah. These bad boys.

But the most important aspect of Vick’s success was what it meant for the city. Watching SportsCenter and seeing his name on the screen meant that they were talking about my team, my city. It meant that Atlanta was now playing on a national level because of our quarterback. Finally, we had a player that everyone wanted and that made his success OUR success.

I remember watching the pre-game show before a Monday Night Football game one night when they eschewed the normal introduction and instead showed a video of Michael Vick highlights with Usher’s “Yeah” playing the background. There was a massive smile on my face throughout the entire clip because I couldn’t think of any other way I’d rather have my team and city on display nationally. The entire video was quintessential Atlanta, and Vick was at the center of it all.

It was a time when everything seemed possible and entertainment was guaranteed. Of course, it wasn’t meant to last.

My heart was broken when I heard the news of Vick’s investigation. I was old enough at the time to understand that nothing would be the same. He would never fulfill his massive potential, and the city’s brightest star was suddenly shrouded. People’s opinions of him changed, and a city that for so long ached for a player like Vick struggled to cope with the news.

Now, Vick seems far down the path of redemption. He has become an advocate for animals’ rights and is open about the lessons he has learned. The legacy that he left behind in Atlanta will always be full of “what-ifs,” but his performance on the field was the opposite. Vick answered the questions nobody had dared to tackle before in football. He created an entirely new perspective of what the position could be and the potential a player could achieve.

Vick was the player Atlanta had always hoped for, and I am forever grateful to have witnessed him unite my city.