- When the Falcons drafted QB Matt Ryan in 2008, Michael Vick—then in prison—realized that his time playing in Atlanta was likely over. How did he move past that disappointment and turn into one of the team's biggest cheerleaders? He reflects on that and more in this extensive interview.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Michael Vick should be blushing. The former No. 1 pick in the NFL draft is one of the most dynamic players in NFL history, and plenty of quarterbacks over the past decade have tried to replicate his athletic style that he pioneered.
On the field, Vick is remembered for his six mostly electrifying seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, from 2001–06. During that time, he led the Falcons to the 2004 NFC Championship Game—only the second conference championship game in franchise history—and he went to three Pro Bowls. But off the field, of course, Vick was embroiled in a dogfighting scandal that sent him to prison for nearly two years and stalled his football career in his prime.
As the Falcons prepare to play in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, I caught up with Vick via phone conversation. With his playing days behind him, Vick has become an ardent Falcons fan, and he was on hand for the divisional win over the Seahawks. In our conversation, Vick was thoughtful and forthcoming about his relationship with Matt Ryan, regrets from his post-conviction playing career, athlete protests and his plans for the future.
Jonathan Jones: How excited are you for your former team finally reaching the Super Bowl?
Michael Vick: Man, I’m pumped to see this franchise move this far from the past four or five or six years where it’s been some up-and-down years, and they’ve been able to get some good runs and it’s been some not-so-good runs. They were able to put it all together. They kind of felt off the radar throughout the season and it kind of looked like the Atlanta Falcons team of the last three or four years and you forgot about them, then they surged onto the scene at the end. They got hot, put on a great performance in the playoffs and took advantage of the homefield opportunities. I’m pumped for them, man. I’m excited as a fan, not only for the franchise but to see some good football.
JJ: What are your feelings about Atlanta the city, and what a win for the team would mean for the city and the people of Atlanta?
MV: Just a championship within itself brings jubilation to a franchise and a city. When you don’t have a championship, that’s all you yearn for. To be in a situation where you have a chance to do that is a blessing. To be able to pull it off is even more of a blessing. I think everybody has their fingers crossed hoping for the best.
JJ: How much time do you spend in Atlanta?
MV: I’m usually in Atlanta five or six times, maybe more, a year. Depends on if it’s business or if there’s something going on. I’m always flying through there and connecting so I feel the relationship and connection with the fans all the time. The love is still there. Very good people, and people who just work extremely hard and believe in what they believe in and love the Falcons.
JJ: When you went there as the Eagles quarterback, you weren’t that well-received.
MV: Yeah it wasn’t fun (laughs).
JJ: How do you go from being booed as mercilessly as you were in 2009 to all the love you get at the airport and the love you got a few weeks ago at halftime of the regular season finale at the Georgia Dome?
MV: I don’t think it was personal when I was getting booed. It was booing the opposition. I think if it was maybe Roddy White and he was playing for the Buccaneers if he left here… you’re going to get booed when you’re playing the opposing team. And the story behind my situation, it was nothing personal. Everybody just has to grow from that. It was tough, man. It was weird and it was always strange to be on the other side playing against them. Even though we lost to them both times we played against them, it was never personal like, “Man I wish we would have beat Atlanta just to throw it back in their face.” It was never that. I was more so disappointed as a competitor not winning the game for the Eagles, as opposed to losing against the Falcons.
JJ: If things had turned out differently for you, do you think the Falcons would have gone on a run like this in the late 2000s? Early ’10s? Were you guys setting up for one of those runs before ’07?
MV: I think everything happened in due time. When I finished up I had completed six seasons. Going into my seventh season we had a new coach. We were trying to put together all the pieces of the puzzle together and we were trying to put on a run. In the NFL, for some teams it takes time. Look at this team. Look at how long Matt Ryan and Julio have been there and working together and grinding it out. It took eight or nine years to get there. You never know when your run is going to come. It’s all about building.
JJ: I came across a picture the other day of you and Cam Newton about a week or two ago. What’s it like knowing that you spawned a generation of quarterbacks?
MV: Man, it’s great. When I think back on my story and what I wanted to do as a kid, it was just to be drafted in whatever round I could be drafted in and make the most of that opportunity. The city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Falcons organization believed in me as a young starter at the age of 22, and believed in my skillset. Dan Reeves believed in me. Arthur Blank believed in me. They made that decision together to start me as a 22-year-old sophomore quarterback. I took advantage of that opportunity and took advantage of my skillset. That skillset allowed me to become one of the most polarizing figures in sports in terms of being a pioneer of the position, revolutionizing the position, and inspiring a lot of kids. Now we’ve got that style of play everywhere. Anytime I watch kids, whether it’s in high school, college or the NFL playing the way I played, I know why they’re doing it. It’s great. I’m just glad it’s accepted. It’s a part of the game now, and it’s very hard to defend now. It’s won Super Bowls.
JJ: Imagine if another Michael Vick had come around and you, Michael Vick, are coming up now. Our offensive schemes are more advanced. We know the zone-read better. We have more run-pass options. Could you imagine being even more successful if you had these kinds of schemes?
MV: Absolutely. I had to grow and develop as a quarterback in my skillset. And I had to run a pro-style offense even though I was gifted enough to run a spread offense, the type of offense that they’re running today. It just wasn’t my time. It just wasn’t my era. It took for me to go through my phases in the game, my years in the game, and integrate the Wildcat into our offense in 2006, the year I ran for 1,000 yards. Then it became a commodity. You had to have the right kind of quarterback, and those guys started coming out and the Wildcat was being ran. Years later, you’ve got Russell Wilson winning a Super Bowl. You’ve got Cam Newton in a Super Bowl. That style of play took effect. If I was able to run it, it would have been scary. It wasn’t meant for me, because the year I ran it for the first time, I ran for 1,000 yards. Now who knows what would have happened in ’07, but I just didn’t make it that far. Then I didn’t step on the field as a full-time starter until three years later, and then I went from the age of 27 to the age of 30, and you know what happens as time goes on.
JJ: I’m sure you had to run through the what-ifs. Do you still play the what-ifs? You lost those three years of your life.
MV: Sometimes I do, but very rarely. I like to live life forward not backwards. I think the things you dwell on and hold grudges versus yourself, it creates a certain level of stress. I want to live for a long time, so I try to live a stress-free life and try to be as vibrant as I can every day.
JJ: You mentioned Arthur Blank earlier. I know when you were there, a lot of people referred to your relationship with him as a father-son type of relationship. What kind of work did it take to rebuild and repair that relationship after your time in prison?
MV: It just took an open line of communication. I was two years older when I came home and more mature. Getting a better understanding of what life was about really helped me in terms of my communication with him. He only wanted the best for me, always allowed me every opportunity to walk into his office every day and express concerns or needs. The door was always open, but what it took to rebuild that was just time. Arthur knows the type of person I am deep down inside, and he knows my background and where I come from. So I think putting all that together, he was able to create an assumption of how to handle me, and he was deadly accurate with it. Still to this day he knows the right questions to ask of me. I’m very appreciative of the friendship. It goes a long way.
JJ: When I talked to Matt Ryan after the NFC Championship Game, he told me you’ve been a big supporter of his for a long time. How have you encouraged him over the years?
MV: Absolutely. Well I’ve always felt like Matt was going to be one of the top quarterbacks in the game. Guys have their top fives and top 10. Matt was always somewhere in my top five. You’ve got your guys—the Roethlisbergers and Rodgerses—guys who had been doing it a little longer. And he was always on the cusp, and I always felt he was the guy who could get them over the hump. He was a long-term, franchise quarterback. Everything he did, year-in and year-out, he looked good doing it. I’m a big fan of quarterback play. He just happened to be playing for one of the teams that I had a lot of respect for. And he beat me twice. So I got to respect it.
JJ: How did you know that they drafted him in 2008 when you were locked up? How were you able to keep up with the team?
MV: I always watched ESPN when I was in Leavenworth [federal prison]. They were always talking about what was going on and current events in sports. In 2008 I was very anxious to see what would happen. A couple representatives from the Falcons had come out to see me. I was always keeping hope alive that maybe I could return and finish what I started, but I always knew that door would close and a new chapter would open for the Atlanta Falcons. When they drafted Matt when I was prison, I was a little shocked. Stunned. A little bitter. A little salty. But I was able to get over it quick because I understood the circumstances.
JJ: Did you have a heads up before draft night or did you find out on ESPN?
MV: Oh no, not at all. I found out through the draft watching it. I walked upstairs late when they were watching the draft and somebody was like, ‘You know who the Atlanta Falcons drafted?’ I was like who? They said Matt Ryan. And you know there was a lot of talk about them selecting a quarterback, and you never know what’s going to happen until you see it actually happen. When they did, I was a little stunned. I was like I’ll be playing for another team if given the opportunity.
JJ: What did you do that night? Was it a punch-the-wall kind of thing or did you just go sit alone and think on it?
MV: It was just very hurtful. The same day it was my mother’s birthday and I lost my grandmother on the same day. [Caletha Vick had a stroke that day and died later in the week. Vick was not be allowed to attend the funeral.] It was a very rough day mentally, emotionally and also spiritually. You start to question certain things. But I could only question so much because I knew the reason why I was at where I was at. Going against my core principles and what I was taught in life, and not being loyal to certain people and not being honest.
JJ: After the shock of it wears off and you realize you’re not going to be an Atlanta Falcon, when was that?
MV: Right after the announcement was made. And I knew that my life was going to take a different turn. I knew trying to get back into the NFL wasn’t going to be in the same locker room. It wasn’t going to be in the same city or the guys that I had grown to love over a six-year time span. It wasn’t going to be with the people in that organization that I had gotten to know who was pulling for me to be the best that I could be. It was a very tough moment. I like to think about it now because I was able to get through it with a lot of gratitude and humility. I had to accept what had been thrown my way. I thought it was a good situation for that franchise to exhale and say OK we’re going in a different direction. It was a great moment, in a sense.
JJ: Can you imagine the kind of spot Matt was in, having to follow up you in Atlanta?
MV: And that’s why I’ve pulled for Matt from Day One. He can breathe life back into the city, as well as with other guys surrounding him. Yeah it took years of building, but that’s what it takes in the NFL. He was very persistent in the process of being great, and maybe proving a lot of people wrong—not even proving them wrong, but gaining respect. That’s what it’s all about.
JJ: After what was done was done, is there anything that you wish you could play back? Any regrets from your days with the Eagles, Steelers or Jets, maybe even yesterday?
MV: I wish I had been more assertive in being more consistent in terms of my own play-calling. I know there were times where I probably could have had that opportunity, but things were so good, I just wanted to trust my coaches. But sometimes you’ve got to trust yourself out on the field. When I played, I think there were times when I pulled back the reins and should have been more accessible to my beliefs in football and what I saw and knew. I’m pretty sure Andy Reid would have allowed me to call my own plays or do some things that I may have wanted to do. But I totally trusted and believed in him. I learned so much from him. But it would have been a big help. So now I feel like I have to take it out in coaching at some point. I have a lot to give back.
JJ: Why didn’t you speak up then? Were you trying to play the good soldier role?
MV: I just liked what we were doing. I knew Andy trusted me, and he wanted to get a ring so bad for me, for Philadelphia. He was very creative with (then-offensive coordinator) Marty Mornhinweg. Everything they put on paper—this concept, this play or that play—I liked. I couldn’t even pick out a game plan because I liked everything. I used to go in there and say just call it and I’ll get it done. That’s the kind of player that I was. I had so much belief in myself and my coaches.
JJ: I recently wrote a piece on the city of Atlanta and how things have shifted in the past 10 years. In talking with folks for it, a couple of people I talked to said that you were made an example of. With the suspension and the prison sentence and community service, and then you come out and there are protests at every game you play at, did you ever feel like you gave more than your pound of flesh? Did you say enough was enough?
MV: There were times I said enough was enough, but I felt like it was 93% of the world who really understood what I went through. Yeah, they thought I got a raw deal. A lot of people believed in the forgive-and-forget method and the world of second chances. Ninety-three percent of the world believed in that, and I live that every day to this day because so many people are so supportive—of all backgrounds, races, color, nationalities. Every day. And I appreciate that. And then there’s another 7% of the people, you may want to consider them radicals, who may never want to forgive or forget. And you’ve got to respect that, too. Those are people’s beliefs. I think they should keep it amongst themselves and try to find a way to harness that and work on it. I’m just thankful for the 93% of fans that I still do have who support me and wish and hope for the best for me. I take that with a lot of humility.
JJ: There was a lot of talk, especially this year, about social activism and protests, obviously led by Colin Kaepnerick. What’d you make of it all?
MV: Everybody’s got their own views and beliefs, and you’ve got to respect them. It may not be the right thing to do, it may not be the wrong thing to do. Some people are outspoken in what they believe in, and we’ve got to leave it at that. Look at it as an opportunity to [encourage] change. I think that’s what it all stands for and what it’s all about. People have to be respectful of people’s thoughts, and it’s all to make the world a better place. I know I try to live life moving forward not backwards and pull as many kids with me because the kids are our future. I think that’s what it’s all about; to make this world one, one day. We can get there.
JJ: As one of the freak athletes of a former era, you know Julio Jones is one of the freak athletes of this era. How well do you know Julio and what could you two have done together?
MV: I know Julio well. I’ve met him on a couple different occasions and I’ve spent time with him at some of Roddy White’s football camps. I don’t know what I could have done with Julio. He’s a special guy, but you have to have the right coordinators and people who know how to use him. You could easily have a guy like Julio and not put him in the best positions for him to succeed—moving him around on the field, putting him in the slot, putting him outside, designing plays specifically for him and what he does well. It wouldn’t have been just about me. It would have been about our entire offense as a whole.
JJ: Is there any current Falcons player that could beat you in a foot race?
MV: I doubt it. Wait, are you saying now?
JJ: Yes. Now. Today.
MV: Who knows? Tell you what, they’d have to give me three months to train for it. And listen, they may beat me, but it won’t be by a wide margin. Let’s just leave it at that.
JJ: Over last summer you said that if you didn’t get picked up in 2016 you would retire. So is this it?
MV: Yeah, I think it’s it. I’m kind of looking at life from a different perspective now. I’ve got kids growing that I’ve got to be there for. I was committed in 2016 to giving it one more shot. I’m very content with my career and what I’ve been able to accomplish. I accomplished more than I ever thought I would. Listen, at the end of the day, through all the downs I played, I can say I won a game for every team that I played for, even though I only made three starts in New York and three starts in Pittsburgh. I made a difference, I’m content with my career and I’m ready to move forward in life.
JJ: So what’s next for Michael Vick?
MV: I think trying to take those steps in coaching or giving back—as long as it’s something connected with the game of football. Whether it’s sitting on the set of College GameDay or on NFL Network, I don’t know. I would have to work at it to make sure I’m good at it and happy doing it every day. But I think the future’s bright.