I remember how it was that Saturday in 2001. I remember so many folks descending on Falcons headquarters for a scheduled draft-day celebration that traffic backed up for miles and even Hall County police couldn’t sort it out. I remember what Dan Reeves said about driving to work that giddy day: “People were pulling up beside me and giving me the thumbs-up. Usually they give me some other sign.”
I remember how thrilled we all were that Michael Vick was a Falcon. I remember Jamal Anderson — not Jamaal, but Jamal — saying how heady it felt to be part of an organization that traded up to make such a wonderful thing happen. I remember the feeling that a door to the future had been flung wide open, and that ahead was nothing but seashells and balloons.
I remember waiting for his apprenticeship to end, and I remember the giddiness over the opening game of the 2002 season and how splendid he was in an overtime loss at Lambeau Field. (He would soon revisit the scene to even greater effect.) I remember watching him grow week by week, from the breathless tie forged in Pittsburgh to the overtime wonder wrought in the Metrodome, and I remember thinking Jeff Hullinger said it perfectly on Falcons radio, that this was indeed “the incomparable Michael Vick.”
I remember the thrall in which we approached the 2003 season, with Vick and the Falcons coming off the playoff win in Green Bay and a Super Bowl seeming near at hand, and the utter deflation that accompanied his broken leg that Saturday night against Baltimore. And even then what I remember about that season isn’t all those Vick-less losses but the moment in Houston when he trotted on the field and even the opposing Texans were yelling to one another: “Vick’s in the game! Vick’s in the game!”
I remember 2004, the apex of his career, the DVD backfield and the stomping of the Rams on a Saturday night in the playoffs, and how headed for Philadelphia and the NFC title game it seemed fully possible Vick could contrive to beat a better team in the chill and the snow. And when he couldn’t quite, it figured to be no big deal. He and his team would be back soon enough.
But they weren’t. And what I remember about those next few years is of a career unraveling and a franchise imploding and the layers of a famous person being peeled back until we weren’t sure this was the same guy. We don’t need a recitation of all the incidents at this late date, for we know them all by heart. And indeed, that’s what the decline and fall of Michael Dwayne Vick did to us all: It hit us in the heart. It broke our hearts.
And now he’s a Falcon no longer. We’ve known for almost two years the day was coming, but still it arrived with a thud. He was once the best reason, often the only reason, to watch the Atlanta Falcons play, and it wasn’t only Atlantans who felt that way. I remember the Christmas when my wife had to go find a No. 7 jersey to take back to Northern Kentucky because our little niece had asked Santa for one.
I remember seeing him in his glory, orchestrating the fourth-quarter comeback against San Diego in 2004 and throwing the ball so expertly in Cincinnati in 2006, and I remember talking with him and feeling — every single time I walked away — that he was a good guy with a good heart. And now, when I remember the sobering spring of 2007 and everything thereafter, I feel only sadness.
He was the biggest athlete this city has ever seen. As much happiness as he brought us, he could and should have done so much more.