Michael Vick, Back at the Scene of His Prime

Michael Vick returns to the Atlanta Falcons facility for the first time since his dogfighting conviction
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I cannot blame you if you either missed the part of “FOX NFL Sunday” that made me drop my jaw, or if you didn’t get the impact I saw—Michael Vick back in Atlanta, at Falcons headquarters.

“My first thought when I drove up was, ‘I wonder if the gate code is the same?’” Vick said on Sunday from Los Angeles, after his interview of Atlanta receiver Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu aired. “I remembered it, but there was a guard there now.”

On Thursday, Vick made his first trip to the Falcons complex in Flowery Branch, Ga., northeast of Atlanta, in 10-and-a-half years. The most exciting player in football had his career in Atlanta dead-ended when, in 2007, he was sent to prison for 21 months on a dog-fighting conviction. He works for FOX now, and the network assigned him to interview the two Atlanta receivers for a story on Sunday’s show. He arrived Thursday and sat in the same indoor practice facility he used for practice with the Falcons when he was the biggest thing in the NFL.

“The last time I was there,” Vick told me, “was for a spring practice in 2007. Hue Jackson was offensive coordinator and Bobby Petrino was head coach. My last conversation, and I’ll never forget this, Hue told me, ‘Bobby Petrino says you’ll be the MVP of this league in 2007.’ This really meant a lot to me. I fulfilled one-third of my work with the Falcons that year, I guess, with the off-season program.”

But he was suspended by the NFL in August for the dog-fighting, and then sent to a federal penitentiary in Kansas, and the Falcons prepared for life without Vick. Petrino quit late in the season, enraging players and coaches. The Falcons were a mess.

“We’d have been a really good football team,” Vick said Sunday. “I think I’d have worked well together with Bobby. I credit [owner] Arthur Blank and [GM] Rick McKay with trying to find the right coach for our team. But I guess it wasn’t my time.”

The next year, Blank installed Thomas Dimitroff as GM and Mike Smith as coach, and Matt Ryan was taken with the first-round pick, and the rest is history. Vick was released by the team in June 2009, signed by the Eagles, and he had a meteoric tenure in Philly, making the Pro Bowl after some classic Vick games in 2010. Now he’s 37, adjusting to a quieter life in Florida and doing some TV for FOX.

But this wasn’t his first time seeing some Falcons. He’s gotten to know Ryan, and texts him before some games, and had dinner with him and some other players at Blank’s home in Hilton Head, S.C., earlier this year.

“I would say my relationship with the team is good—it’s great,” Vick said. “Everyone has moved on. I had great times in Atlanta. They’ve got a great team now. It was great to be back and relive the great moments I had there. I never want to forget about the things that happened; I want to learn from them, and I have.

“I think about my life now, and I’d love to say I’m on TV because of what I did. But it’s because of the people who supported me along the way and stuck up for me. Think about it … A lot of people have to be on board to hire me to do this, with what I’ve been through. I am so grateful for that. I’ve had a lot of mentors who’ve helped me. So I’m just trying to do the best I can.”

When Vick walked into the facility on Thursday, Falcons pass-rusher Vic Beasley was waiting for him. In 2006, when Vick had a particularly starry year, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and throwing 20 touchdown passes, Beasley was 14, a Georgian who loved the Falcons and Vick.

“You are absolutely my favorite player of all time!” Beasley gushed.

FOX got what it wanted—some good stuff from the normally tight-lipped Jones (“when stuff goes bad … just be men and don’t point fingers,” Jones said) and some star face time between Vick and players. Vick got what he wanted: a bit of closure he never received after leaving the facility and going to prison for nearly two years.

“End of the day,” Vick said plaintively, “it was good. I wondered for a while, ‘What will this be like? How will I be treated? What will happen?’ But it was all good. Mission accomplished.”