February 01, 2017

ATLANTA (AP) Michael Vick never led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl.

His career with the team ended in disgrace.

Yet no one is rooting harder for the Falcons to win their first championship.

''A lot of people are surprised when they find out how passionately I've been rooting for the Falcons this season,'' Vick wrote in a more than 4,300-word letter posted Wednesday on The Players' Tribune website. ''They assume that there is some sort of tension between us, some level of bitterness. And even when I tell people that it isn't the case ... I have a feeling they may not exactly believe me.''

Vick was perhaps the most dynamic player in franchise history , a quarterback who revolutionized the position with both his passing and running skills.

But after six years with the Falcons, a stint that included two playoff appearances and one trip to the NFC championship game, Vick was sent to prison in 2007 for running a dogfighting operation. While serving his time, the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan, handed him the starting quarterback job and cut all ties with Vick.

In his letter, Vick said he always thought he would get a chance to rejoin the team because of his unique bond with the city.

''I wanted to lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl,'' he wrote. ''In my mind, even from a prison cell, there was at least one thing I hadn't lost: I was still the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.''

While at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas, Vick learned the Falcons had taken Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in 2008. Heartbroken, he finally realized there was no going back to Atlanta, at least as a member of the home team.

Vick played five years for the Philadelphia Eagles and had backup stints with the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. He did not play this past season and will reportedly hold a retirement bash the night before the Super Bowl in Houston.

''As my playing career in the NFL winds down, and as I reflect on the past and really start to contemplate where I go from here ... well, one thing that I've known I always wanted to do was write a letter, And not just any letter. I wanted to write a letter to the city of Atlanta,'' Vick said. ''Without Atlanta, I'm nothing. Without Atlanta, I might not even be here to write this today.''

The team and the city patched up the relationship with Vick this season . He readily accepted when the Falcons invited him to participate in a ceremony with other former Atlanta players marking the final regular-season game at the Georgia Dome. When he came out at halftime, riding in a convertible with former teammate Roddy White, the stadium erupted with a huge ovation.

There were no boos.

''The lights were so bright - and I just let them wash over me. If I had gone blind, in that moment, then that would have been OK,'' Vick wrote.

''The cheers were so loud - and I just let them pour into my ears. If I had gone deaf, in that moment, then that also would have been OK.

''And we made our way further and further onto the field, it just got brighter, and brighter, and louder, and louder. I didn't actually want to die, right then, in front of 70,000 people - but it was one of those moments where you're thinking, You know what? I could die right here ... and that would be OK, too.

''It was perfect.''

After initially being resentful of Ryan, Vick said he's enormously proud of what his successor has done. He said Ryan should be the league's MVP and predicted the Falcons will beat the New England Patriots 23-16 on Sunday.

''I've been living and dying with every play: pumping my fist after every touchdown. (And thankfully there have been a lot of touchdowns.) Watching every field goal attempt through my fingers. (And thankfully most of them have been good.) I've just been a fan,'' Vick wrote.

''I can't help but feel as though I am finally coming full circle: The Falcons are back in the Super Bowl ... and I'll be there. Not on the field, like I'd once dreamed of. Not raising that trophy, like I'd once felt was my destiny. But I'll be there, rooting for my team as hard as anyone. I'll be sitting and watching, hoping and praying. I'll be there, as if I was right there, still there, under center - as if I was an Atlanta Falcon myself.

''In my heart, I always will be.''

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The Players' Tribune: http://www.theplayerstribune.com/michael-vick-atlanta-falcons-super-bowl-li/

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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