The worst thing about growing up is learning the truth about certain things in life. It's an inevitable process on the journey of growing up. For me, learning about the ills of professional sports has been nothing short of depressing. As a child, professional Sports is like a magical story about larger-than-life athletes who could do incredible things, things we would go outside and practice for hours. And let's not forget the video games, which made athletes even more mythical.
That's what Madden 04 did to Michael Vick
I was 13 when Madden 04 dropped. I was very wise for my age when it came to sports. ESPN for me at that time was like CNN for a middle-aged white conservative. Sports was life and life was sports. Video games also controlled most of my life, spending multiple late nights playing Madden 04 with Vick on the cover. I can't think of how many mornings I woke up pretending to be sick so I could stay home and play owner/GM/coach on franchise mode, one of the newest features in the Madden series.
I never played with Michael Vick. After I experienced how unstoppable he was, I felt like it was an unfair advantage to use him, hence the Michael Vick rule. I have memories of trying to beat him during the franchise mode, whether it be in the regular season, playoffs, or Super Bowl - many of those attempts ending with me hurling my controller to the ground and yelling obscenities at my TV, just for my mother to yell from wherever she was, "Watch your damn mouth!". This was an everyday thing with me and Michael Vick.
Despite our virtual rivalry, Michael Vick was my favorite player, in all sports. You couldn't find a kid on the planet that didn't like Michael Vick. The Powerade commercials that showed him throwing the ball from one end of the field into the stands on the opposite end, or throwing the ball so hard that it took the receiver off his feet, turned him into a football superhero. We believed he could really do those things. As a 13-year old, I remember debating my adult cousins on whether or not Vick could really throw the ball 120 yards. In my mind, he could do everything. He was that special to my generation.
When Vick entered the league in 2001, I was excited to see what he would do on the pro level. I already knew how amazing he was watching him at Virginia Tech, but mobile quarterbacks weren't around in the NFL. Most mobile quarterbacks that were studs in college didn't play quarterback in the NFL, but it was impossible for the scouts to deny Vick throwing ability. Vick wasn't the first mobile quarterback to play in the NFL, Randall Cunningham being the first to revolutionize the quarterback position with his feet, but Vick was something different. Vick was like Bo Jackson, a great athlete that could do so many things on the football field. It was like god created a player and came up with Michael Vick. His second season in Atlanta was filled with memorable runs, most notably the game-winning 46-yard touchdown against the Vikings where he made two defenders run into each other. He also finished with 178 rushing yards that game, which was the record for most rushing yards by a quarterback at the time.
That same season he also led the Falcons to the playoffs, defeating Brett Farve and the Packers in a snowstorm at Lambeau Field. The following season, they would advance to the NFC Championship for the first time since 1998. Atlanta was the place to be during Vick time as Falcons' quarterback. He was a part of an Atlanta crusade that took over the hip-hop world and pop culture. Atlanta entertainers like Lil Jon, Ludacris, T.I., Ying Yang Twins, Young Jeezy, and many other artists were turning Atlanta into the biggest hub in hip-hop. Vick reinforced that movement by being the polarizing talent that he was and appearing in their videos.
I believed in the Michael Vick Experience and wanted to be apart of it. When Nike released his first shoe, the Vick Zoom 1s, with the classic "Michael Vick Experience" commercial, I was all over them. Along with a black and red #7 Falcons jersey, which I'll admit, was blasphemous because I was a die-hard Cowboys fans (Still am), but I didn't care, Vick was a football god in my adolescent sports world.
Then 2007 happened and Vick was out of the league.
As a senior in High School, more mature and in-tuned with the dynamics of the world outside of sports - I was compelled by what was going on with one of my all-time favorite players. I was distraught to see his NFL career come to a halt just one season after being the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards. I defended Vick throughout his entire jail sentence, and still do to this day, but seeing him go to prison was my first taste of what professional sports can be like. These athletes that we deify as young sports fans become mere mortals when they fall from grace. It was like being told Santa Claus is not real for the first time.
That was also the beginning of the end for me and ESPN. I grew a strong disdain for the network and their analyst after watching their continuous coverage of his trial. The narratives that were being told made Vick out to be a scumbag of a person. It was my first real glimpse of how the media can turn on you and use you as a pinata.
In his open letter to Atlanta that he wrote through the Players Tribune, Vick spoke about how he wanted to return to Atlanta after he was released from prison. Once the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan, he knew that his time in Atlanta was officially over, which he consider the point when he hit rock bottom. The Michael Vick experience was no more. Something that I revered and loved as a teenager had turned into a life lesson on adulthood.
Michael Vick's time in Atlanta will be one of the most important eras in my sports lifetime. I got to witness a once in a lifetime phenom at his pinnacle. He brought a different type of swag to the quarterback position, which bothered a lot of football conservatives. He wore a tinted visor. He wore jewelry. He hung out with the biggest rap stars in Atlanta. He was a black quarterback that had the strongest arm in the league. He was the quarterback of the culture, birthing an era of dual-threat quarterbacks. Because of what Michael Vick did in Atlanta, the conception of black quarterbacks changed. No longer was they viewed as an extra running back on the field. Coaches on all levels began to respect their aerial skills. Some think Mike Vick is not a hall of famer, but it's not many that compare to his impact on the culture.