Feb 1 2017
On the first day of my sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary, on November 19, 2007, I made a list of three things that I wanted to accomplish. One was to make it home from prison safe. Two was to see my grandmother again, before she passed away. And three was to return to the Atlanta Falcons as their starting quarterback — and finish what I’d started.
I wanted to lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl.
When I tell people this, at first, I think most of them have the same reaction — that I was delusional. Mike, you really thought, after all that, that you were going to come back to the Falcons … and start at quarterback … like nothing had happened?
I think people would hear that I had hung on to the hope of returning to Atlanta as their quarterback … and then maybe assume that I was in denial about my entire situation. That I still wasn’t able to accept the full severity of what I had done.
But to be honest, that really wasn’t the case at all. In those first few months of my sentence, I really did come to understand how far I had fallen. I came to understand how much hurt I had caused, and how much work it was going to take to earn back just a portion of the respect that I had lost — both people’s respect for me, and my respect for myself. I came to accept the consequences.
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But there was one thing that I just had a permanent blind spot for: being the starting quarterback of the Falcons. It was something that I had taken so much pride in … something that I had come to identify myself with so strongly. Who was I? I was Mike Vick, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons. I was those five words. They were a part of me. They were … who I was. And so I think I just sort of developed this one blind spot, purely out of necessity, to keep my emotions in check. I was sorry — sorrier than I could ever express — for what I had done. I was prepared to serve my sentence, and to do so with dignity. I knew the millions of dollars that I had lost, and the value to my reputation that I had lost, and every day was a reminder of the freedom that I had lost. I knew all of that.
But 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.
That was my job, on my team, in my city.
They could take everything else — I deserved it. They could have everything. But my job … my team … my city? Those three things, I was going to get back. It’s what I thought about on the day that I walked into prison, and it’s what I thought about pretty much every day after that.
That is, until April 26, 2008.
I remember the exact date, because it was my mom’s birthday.
It was also the date of the NFL draft.
Leavenworth had certain rules for using the phone to make calls, where each inmate would get a set number of phone minutes a month. Normally, you couldn’t use more than 10 of those minutes a day. But sometimes, if you’d saved up your minutes, and you got lucky, they’d let you roll some over. And I’d made sure to roll mine over just right — so that I’d have a full 15 minutes to talk to my mom on her birthday.
Except, when I called her that day, she pretty much cut me off right away.
“Michael, I’ve gotta tell you something.”
“Is everything O.K.? Mom — what’s wrong?”
“Grandma had a stroke.”
I don’t even remember if I told her happy birthday or not. All I remember are those first few words. She told me it was bad, and that my grandmother probably wasn’t going to make it. And man … that tore me up. It’s almost hard to know what to write here. I was so distraught that I could feel tears welling up in my eyes — and you don’t cry in prison. You can’t really show that type of emotion. You don’t want to show weakness. So I rubbed the tears off my face, and I hung up the phone. And then I made my way up to the TV room.
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I was late.
The draft had already started — was almost an hour in— and most of the other guys were already up there watching. As I walked up the stairs, on my way to the TV area, I passed another inmate who was on his way down.
“Hey Mike,” he said — his voice was kind of hesitant, like he only halfway wanted to talk. “You see who the Falcons drafted?”
“Nah, I been at the phones. Who?”
My heart dropped.
This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. 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.
I wanted to write to the city as a whole, and to the people in it — to remember, I guess, and to say thanks. And maybe also just to sort of reflect. Because without Atlanta … man, without Atlanta, I’m nothing. Without Atlanta, I might not even be here to write this today.
And when the Falcons beat the Packers two weeks ago, and made it to the Super Bowl — well, it seemed like the perfect time. It’s been almost 10 years, now, since I last played a down for the Falcons. And for whatever reason, and it’s hard to explain … there is something about this year, and this season, that just feels right. It seems like Atlanta — as a team, as a city, as a culture — is finally coming full circle. And in my own small way, I hope I am too.
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It’s funny: A lot of people are surprised when they find out how passionately I’ve been rooting for the Falcons this season. 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.
But if you could see me watching these games … man, you would believe me then. 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.
And if people still don’t believe me … if they still don’t understand how I could be a diehard Falcons fan, after all of these years, and all of our history … well … then I don’t know what else to say.
Because in that case, they must just not understand family.
They must not understand Atlanta.
When I think about my legacy with the Falcons, there are a number of tangible things that I’m proud of.
I’m proud of January 4, 2003: when we marched into Green Bay, into Lambeau Field in the middle of a snowstorm, and came home with a 27–7 win over a Packers team that pretty much everyone had favored. I’m proud of January 15, 2005: when we hosted Atlanta’s first home playoff game in six years, and beat the Rams 47–17 to earn a trip to the NFC championship game. And I’m proud of December 24, 2006: when I became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
Photo By Darren Hauck/AP Images
And of course … we gotta talk about Madden.
People will still come up to me all the time and want to talk about it. They’ll tell me about the 95 speed rating … the 95 agility … the 97 arm strength … by now I know it all by heart. People love — man, love — to tell me their “Vick in Madden” stories. About how they ran for 500 yards in one game. Or about how they broke the touchdown record in a season, 10 times over. They’ll tell me that I was like a blur of a blur. That I was a human cheat code.
I was so dominant that apparently kids created a rule, like almost a nationwide thing, known as “the Vick Rule.” I think it varied from place to place, but it was basically: If you were playing against your friend, you could pick any team you wanted … except for the Falcons. Because if you picked the Falcons, then you got Vick. And if you got Vick … then it was game over.
To be honest, and I’m glad I can finally admit this, I never really understood what they were talking about. Don’t get me wrong — I tried. Once in a while, when no one was around, I’d turn on the PlayStation and throw on Madden. And I’d pick the Falcons. And I’d try to see what all the fuss was about. But the truth is … I was never very good at playing as myself.
Actually, you know what? I was pretty bad.
The only person on the entire planet who wasn’t unstoppable while playing as Michael Vick — was me. Michael Vick.
Over my six years as a Falcon, we did a lot of great things together — things that will live on in the record books. And I’m proud of that.
But what I’m most proud of, honestly, is the stuff that is less tangible. The stuff that doesn’t show up in the record books, or on YouTube, or NFL Films. What I’m most proud of is the stuff you had to truly be there for.
I’m proud of the moment we created.
It wasn’t just inside the Georgia Dome. It was also outside of it — throughout the entire city. It was a moment that was everywhere, and for everyone to share in. Everywhere you turned, everywhere you looked: Falcons fitteds, Falcons jerseys … man, it was Falcons everything.
It really did feel like Atlanta culture was at its peak … and I really did feel like I was right there at the center of it.
And it meant a lot to me to be able to give the black kids of Atlanta their very own black quarterback — someone who they could see on the field, and watch play, and think, you know, My QB looks kind of like me. And I could play that position someday, too.
It just felt very real.
It felt like we had made football cool again. Or maybe football wasn’t even ever cool to begin with — maybe we made it cool for the very first time. But whatever it was that was happening, it was happening in a big way.
And it was happening in our backyard.
We used to have this running joke, back when the team really had it going, that, you know: “The Dome is better than the club.” Wasn’t no need to go to the club to meet a lot of people, we figured, when you could just come to the game. I mean, I’d look around before kickoff and I’d see T.I., Usher, Ludacris, David Banner, Bow Wow, Jason Terry. Even politicians — Jimmy Carter would show up every now and then. (Very nice guy. Very humble.) If it was a Falcons home game, man, everyone was there.
And what made that cool was — it wasn’t just a football moment, or a sports moment. It was a full-on cultural moment. It was Atlanta sports, and Atlanta music, and Atlanta movies. And they were all just sort of coexisting, and feeding off of each other, and making each other want to be great, in this really special way.
Maybe the coolest thing about that time was how spontaneous it all felt, and how naturally some of those connections happened. Like, one day, out of the blue, I was approached by T.I’s people about doing a video for “Rubber Band Man,” his new single. Now … me being a very reserved person, I wasn’t really dying to do the actual video aspect of it. But at the same time, it felt like, O.K. — I’m on the come-up in Atlanta in my lane, and he’s on the come-up in Atlanta in his lane, and this is what this exact moment is all about. You show up for your city, and you build these relationships. You share in this culture together.
You try looking smooth next to Usher.
So I showed up for the video shoot, and, listen: You wouldn’t believe all these celebrities there. You had Usher there, you had Jagged Edge there. I think 8Ball and MJG was there. Man, Diddy was in the video. And of course T.I. himself. At first I was a little nervous — you know, being on this set with all of these famous dudes, all of these musical pioneers who I was a fan of like everyone else. But everyone was very friendly, and I ended up just having a lot of fun.
I know I definitely didn’t understand the full magnitude of it at the time — the scope of that becoming such a huge single, and such an iconic video, and such a classic Atlanta moment. And yeah, O.K. — such evidence for my friends to use that I don’t have any rhythm. (You try looking smooth next to Usher.) But I’m glad I did it — and I’m glad for the experience, and for all of the experiences like it. And while it’s nearly impossible to pick out just one memory, or even a hundred memories, from that time period….
Me and Usher, standing there, mugging, dancing, in front of those massive T and I letters, engulfed in flames behind us … as those last notes of “Rubber Band Man” play out….
Man, it doesn’t get much better than that.
It really did feel like Atlanta culture was at its peak … and I really did feel like I was right there at the center of it. Like I was at the center of a whole world, right there, in this crazy community that we had built. I was Mike Vick, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons. I was those five words, man.
Photo By Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
And at that moment, in that city, those five words meant everything.
Four years later, I was in prison, and it was all gone.
I can still hear it.
I can still hear that other inmate’s voice calling out to me as I walked up the stairs to the TV room. Can picture him stopping me on his way down to make small talk. Can picture him turning to me, and saying, “Hey.” Can picture his face, without much expression … not even meaning anything by it. Just a guy I knew, being friendly, trying to tell me about the NFL draft.
“Hey Mike … you see who the Falcons drafted?”
“Nah, I been at the phones. Who?”
And like I said: My heart dropped.
I did my best to seem casual … tried to sort of just play it off.
“Oh, really? That’s cool.”
But I barely had the energy to put up a front. And my heart just kept dropping.
Photo By Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports Images
I know sometimes people will say it’s like they’ve been “punched in the stomach” when something bad happens … but I’d never really understood the expression, until that moment. Matt Ryan. I just kept repeating his name, in my head, again and again. Every time I thought about what it meant, it took the air right out of me — but I couldn’t help it.
Matt Ryan. As in, the quarterback.
Before that moment, I didn’t have much. I didn’t have my money … or my reputation … or, worst of all, my freedom. But I did have one thing. I had those five words: Mike Vick, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons.
And once I heard, Matt Ryan, well … I didn’t have that either.
After that, I knew that everything had changed. I knew there was no going back — not to start for Atlanta, not to play for Atlanta, not even to live in Atlanta. Matt Ryan. After that, I knew it was over.
Matt Ryan. I just kept repeating his name, in my head, again and again.
My grandmother passed away less than a week later, and I filed for bankruptcy a few weeks after that. Not everybody can tell you the specific day that they hit rock bottom, but for me it isn’t hard: April 26, 2008. The day my mom had a birthday and my grandma had a stroke. The day the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan, quarterback out of Boston College.
The day I lost Atlanta.
There are a lot of misperceptions about me — a lot. Probably too many to count. Like, if I started going through all of the things that people think about me that aren’t true, then this letter might never end. So I’m just going to skip 99% of them — and cut straight to this: One of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I have a bad relationship with Matt Ryan.
Matt and I actually have a great relationship.
Over the last few summers, we’ve both gone to Roddy White’s camp in South Carolina — and we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit.
When we’re there, man, we always find some time to go out to eat — me, Matt and Roddy. And we have a really good time with each other. And yeah, maybe we share a football story or two … but it’s really not about that. Mostly it’s just a few guys getting some great food and telling some terrible jokes — you know, just catching up. It’s good friendship, and Matt’s an extremely good dude. Real cool, real funny, real thoughtful. (Matt’s the kind of guy the old folks would call “a fine young man.”)
And just like people are shocked when I tell them I’ve been rooting for the Falcons, people are shocked when I tell them that Matt and I get along.
And I get it. I mean, I just told you my story from prison, my rock bottom. And obviously Matt’s career, and my career, have a very unique connection. I won’t pretend there isn’t a lot of shared history there — or pretend that, on a certain level, some bad memories aren’t involved. But that’s not Matt.
That’s just me.
Matt being such a success — that’s been a joy for me. For me, that’s been relief. It’s been peace of mind.
I told you about my lowest point, but I didn’t tell you what happened after. And what happened after is that, slowly but surely, I made peace. Slowly but surely, I came to understand that, just as I had brought prison on myself … I had also brought the Falcons finding a new quarterback on myself. I mean, how could I not have expected them to move on? How could I blame them? I was the one who had made the mistakes — and because of those mistakes, they just did what they had to do.
And Matt — lucky for the Falcons, and lucky for Atlanta, and honestly, even lucky for me — was a big part of that.
People have to understand: I felt like it was my fault, like it was my responsibility, that the Falcons franchise had been set back. And if Matt had been a bust … then my guilt over the harm I’d caused the city would have only grown worse. So, yeah, I’m human. It hurt when the Falcons drafted Matt. And for a while there, for sure, I was envious of Matt’s position. But Matt being such a success — that’s been a joy for me. For me, that’s been relief. It’s been peace of mind.
And the same thing goes for this MVP season of his (he’s got my vote), and this amazing Super Bowl run (I’ve got the Falcons winning, 23–16). Joy, and relief, and peace of mind. And that’s what I mean, when I say that Atlanta is family. Family isn’t just about when it’s good for you, or when it’s convenient, or when the love comes easy. Family is about when the love comes no matter what.
And that’s my love for Atlanta. It’s no matter what.
So when someone asks me what my relationship with Matt Ryan is like … I just think, Man — do you realize how much we have in common? Matt is one of the very few other people in the world who knows what it’s like to lead this city as the Falcons’ quarterback. Who knows what it’s like to put Atlanta on his back.
Atlanta is family for both of us.
And as far as I’m concerned: Matt and I are family, too.
I wanted that phone call so badly.
When I heard that the Falcons were putting together a ceremony to commemorate the last regular-season game at the Georgia Dome, and that they were going to be inviting some Falcons greats to come back to Atlanta to be part of the ceremony … man. Once I heard they were doing that, all I could think about was getting that invitation. Getting that phone call. I’ve kept a healthy relationship with the team over the years, but always from a distance. After everything that happened, I think the team has always been hesitant to welcome me back into the fold — at least in any official or public capacity. And I understood. But when I heard that this ceremony was happening … well, knowing my part in Falcons history, I just thought to myself, Is it finally my time?
I knew they had started making calls, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. But between you and me: I wanted it so bad. I got to checking my phone, as a habit, to see if I had any calls from an Atlanta area code. Every hour, probably more like every minute, I’m right in there, glancing at my alerts, double-checking my messages, making sure that my ringtone is turned up loud enough, seeing if anyone has gotten in touch. Like I said, I tried not to get my hopes up — but pretty soon, I have to admit, they were up. If they didn’t ask me to take part in the ceremony, and I didn’t get to be a part of saying goodbye to the Georgia Dome … I was going to be pretty heartbroken.
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And then finally, I got the call. I was in Arizona, driving to the airport, when the number of Kevin Winston, the Falcons’ director of player development, showed up on my cell. Kevin and I have been in contact over the years, and we’ll chat every now and again, but still — when I saw his number show up, I had a good idea of what it was about. And then he just said it.
“Mike, I think it’s time for you to come back home.”
Come back home.
I thought about so many things in that moment, on that call. I thought about how impossible something like this had seemed, at times, during my prison sentence. I thought about putting on my number 7 Falcons jerseyagain. And maybe the thing I thought most about, in that moment, was Arthur Blank — who is so much more than just the Falcons owner. Mr. Blank has always been incredibly good to me. He has been, in many ways, almost like a mentor to me. When I got out of prison, he was one of the very first people to get in touch with me. And I just thought about how much it meant, after all these years, to know that I’d earned back his trust.
I can’t really remember the rest of the conversation, because I was so happy. But I’m pretty sure, within a half second or so, I just came back at Kevin, like, “I’m there. I’m all in.”
I flew in the day of the ceremony, and all I could really think about during the flight was, How is my reception going to be? I knew the connection was still there between me and the city, and they had shown me love over the years. But even still: The last two times I had been back in the Dome, it was while wearing another team’s uniform. And as an opponent, just naturally, you’re going to hear your share of boos. As far as my being back on that Georgia Dome field, in front of those Atlanta fans, as a Falcon in some way? It had been almost 10 years. And you just never know.
For the ceremony, they have it so the players come out riding in the beds of these big pickup trucks, in groups — and then, while the truck is driving around the field, each guy’s name is announced, as they wave to the fans. It’s very cool.
But then, for the last group, they have Roddy and I paired together. And the thing is, our car isn’t a pickup.
I have Roddy, looking at me, with that big old Roddy grin, grabbing my shoulders, pumping me up, saying, “Bro. Bro. This is about to be crazy.”
It’s a drop top.
Roddy and I go way back — so he knows me real well. And as soon as he sees me take a look at our car … I know he can tell exactly what I’m thinking: That we’re going to be way more visible, way more “out there” and exposed, than anybody in the other cars. Which means that everyone is going to be able to see my face, and see my reaction, as I absorb whatever level of approval — or disapproval — I receive from the fans. And since, in the back of my mind (or maybe more like the front of my mind), I’m fearing boos and whatnot … well, that just adds to the nerves of it all.
As our car gets ready to take the field, I try my best to stay calm. Listen, I tell myself, you probably have more fans in here — just in this building right here — than you have in the entire rest of the world. And then of course I have Roddy, looking at me, with that big old Roddy grin, grabbing my shoulders, pumping me up, saying, “Bro. Bro.”
“This is about to be crazy.”
And then at the last moment … I remember feeling this great sense of calm. My nerves disappeared, and I looked at Roddy, and we laughed. And I just thought, O.K., this is it. Whatever happens, from here on out, today — you made it back. You’ve waited a decade for this, but now you’re here. You’re home. So let’s go.
So we went.
Photo By David Goldman/AP Images
And, man: I barely even know what to say. Because it was so beautiful.
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 O.K.
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 O.K.
And as 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 O.K., too.
It was perfect.
And yeah: I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that, being back on that Georgia Dome field, and hearing that reaction, and having Roddy right there by my side … if I didn’t also think — just think — for just a split second, you know … What I wouldn’t give to go out there and draw up one last play. Just one last play, right now, while everyone is here. What I wouldn’t have given, during that car ride, to just … slide off the back of that drop top, and tell Roddy to go long, and sprint around that turf like I used to, and let one fly.
But then I took a deep breath … and I looked back at Roddy … and I looked back around at the fans … row by row … up into the second level … up into the upper deck … up into the back, back, back row … up into those blinding Georgia Dome lights … and I closed my eyes … and the feeling finally passed.
And I realized: This is that last play. This — just being back here, on this field, right now — is that last moment. And they kept shouting my name, and I kept wanting to shout something back. But then I thought, Nah.
This is Atlanta.
Between family … nothing more needs to be said.
Photo By Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
I’m 36 now — and as my career winds down, and as my life begins to move on to its next chapter, 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.
Michael Vick / Contributor