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For many Atlantans, it's hard to let go of former hero Michael Vick

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ATLANTA -- There was a massacre here last December, on the carpet in the Georgia Dome. You could almost smell the burning feathers. Three of the best Falcons were injured, and they started a quarterback who hadn't started a game in two years. My brother John and I paid more than $100 per ticket for the privilege of sharing an upper-level section with loathsome buffoons in Eagles jerseys. No surprise there: Atlanta fans are often forced to cohabitate with carpetbaggers from the North. But today we felt a new kind of shame. A throng of fans in Falcons colors wore the name and number of the backup quarterback for the other team. His name, of course, was Michael Vick.

Many people booed when he charged from the tunnel onto the field he once owned, but plenty of others cheered. Some waved handmade signs professing their love. They roared in conspiracy when he knifed through the defense for a touchdown to make it 20-0 in the third quarter. In the fourth, on a familiar play-action rollout to his left, he fired a deep spiral to Reggie Brown, who pulled it down between two defenders at the 5-yard-line. On the next play he threw his first touchdown pass since 2006, and a chorus of fans (for which team?) chanted, "WE WANT VICK! WE WANT VICK!" It felt like a punch in the jaw. We loved him, he betrayed us, he came back in hideous Eagle green, he beat our men into the turf, and all we could do was ask him for more. Psychologists have a word for this. They call it codependency.

Now he's an NFL starter again. His quarterback rating is above 105. He's running at age 30 the way he did at age 22. There is some chance we will have to fight him for the last playoff spot in the NFC, and there is some chance he will win that fight. He looks hungry.

We remember that hunger. In those early years he produced spectacular plays every week. We'll never forget the way he carved up the Vikings in that overtime game, or the way he led us to Lambeau Field in the bitter cold and trounced the Packers in the playoffs. Who knocked us out that year? We'll never forget that either. It was the Eagles.

So the next year was going to be even better, and then Vick broke his leg in the preseason. Falcons owner Arthur Blank is said to have shed actual tears over this. He loved Vick more than anyone did. You could see him on the sidelines, pushing our precious quarterback's wheelchair.

Well, Vick came back stronger than ever. In 2004 he raised his sorcery to new heights. There was this one play against the Panthers where he dove for the goal line and at first glance it looked like his knee was down before the ball crossed the plane but if you looked closely on the replay you could see his body moving perfectly parallel to the ground, an inch or two off the turf, literally flying.

We might have gone to the Super Bowl that year, but the road ended once more on the frozen ground of Philadelphia. Nevertheless, Blank rewarded Vick with a historic contract: 10 years, $130 million. He was apparently joking when he told him, "You understand that the only way you'll leave Atlanta will be in a box." Love makes people say the strangest things.

Then something turned. Did he have too much money? Too much fame? Did he spend too much time playing himself in video games? We wish we knew. But it was not long before we began to suspect that Michael Vick did not love us as much as we loved him.

First you had that whole "Ron Mexico" business, which was mildly disturbing, but we pretended not to notice because the truth was inconvenient. He was fumbling a lot. We watched other quarterbacks hitting their receivers in stride on slant routes down the middle, leaving them with room to gain yards after the catch, and we privately wondered why our quarterback never did that. He walked off the field after three-and-outs with no obvious consternation about his failure. Two years in a row the team collapsed in the second half of the season. There was that strange incident at the airport with the secret compartment in the water bottle. And then, in November 2006, after the team's fourth straight loss, he let us know exactly how he felt about us -- by raising both middle fingers toward the stands. Somehow we still couldn't write him off.

Even when the dog killing came to light, even when he went off to Leavenworth, even when our courtly and humble new quarterback led us to the playoffs in his rookie season, even then we couldn't stop thinking about Michael Vick. When does he get out of prison? Could he get time off for good behavior? Might the commissioner shorten his sentence? Is it true that he's playing in a prison football league? Will he have any burst left when he gets out? Will any team want him? The Raiders, maybe? They'll take anyone. Anyway, he did come back, and the Eagles picked him up, and I was looking over the 2009 Falcons schedule, trying to decide which game to attend, and for some perverse reason I picked the Eagles game. I guess I was like everyone else. I just wanted to see him one more time.

Well, Michael. It's September 2010 and you're the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, the team we hate more than any other. (Yes, even more than the Saints.) Prison has apparently given you the focus and drive that Arthur Blank's money never could. You're starting to look like a real quarterback. We'll know for sure on Oct. 17, when we come to Philadelphia one more time. We don't hate you. We just want our defenders to tackle you quite often, pretty hard, behind the line of scrimmage, without damaging any of your bones or ligaments. Remember that thing you did where you used to fumble all the time? That would be all right too.