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 Post subject: After the plea, even Atlanta turns its back on Vick
PostPosted: Tue Aug 21, 2007 3:44 am 
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By John Helyar
ESPN.com
(Archive)

Updated: August 20, 2007



ATLANTA -- Until Monday, Michael Vick still had a core of supporters here. A city that had suffered through decades of Atlanta Falcons losses thrilled at his brilliance. A city that is the cradle of the civil rights movement identified with an embattled black man. At least, a good part of the black population did.

But at the news of Vick's guilty plea on federal dogfighting charges on Monday afternoon, many of the last remnants of support seemed to be crumbling like the typical Falcons offensive line.

"I've been shedding tears all day, trying to explain this to my seven-year-old son," said Gerald Rose, whose New Order human rights group staged a pro-Vick rally outside the Georgia Dome three weeks ago. "I was let down. I was disappointed. I was hurt."

Rose's New Order had been joined by more venerable black organizations here such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the local NAACP office, which had also cautioned against a rush to judgment on Vick several weeks ago.

The Vick saga has been a racially divisive issue in a city that usually manages to gloss over its racial divisions. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll after Vick's indictment in July found that about 55 percent of whites believed the Falcons should release Vick. Only 27 percent of blacks responded that way.

The polarization played out on local radio airwaves. Vick gave his one post-indictment interview to a popular black-oriented station, in which he thanked "all the people that are praying for Mike Vick and are in my corner right now."

A classic rock station, on the other hand, was selling faux Vick jerseys that said "Inmate no. 7" on the front and "Federal Penal League" on the back.

On the "Two Live Stews," a popular drive-time sports-talk show with black co-hosts and many black callers, Vick had plenty of defenders (though also some detractors) . . . until Monday afternoon.

"I feel sad for Arthur Blank, for [safety] Lawyer Milloy, for [offensive lineman] Wayne Gandy, for the Falcons fans, for the Falcons tailgaters," co-host Ryan Stewart told listeners. "I don't feel that bad for Mike Vick. He did it to himself."

Some people here, though, were still sticking with Vick, even as most were sticking it to him. In a reader forum on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's website, one post maintained, "This is about race no matter how we put it. White folks can shoot ducks all day, but when you fight pit bull against pit bull it is a crime."

Gerald Rose insisted, "I still feel race was involved and I think he didn't have any choice." But the activist was no longer defending the quarterback. Instead, he was left wondering about him. "How a man could put himself in that situation?" he asked.

How indeed, wondered many Falcons fans, black and white alike. They'd become increasingly resigned to the end of Michael Vick in Atlanta and the start of the team's Joey Harrington era, as the drumbeat of bad news out of Virginia steadily grew louder. But the final piece of bad news Monday afternoon still was a bitter pill to swallow.

"Remember, if you will, where you were when the Falcons drafted Michael Vick," wrote Dave the Falconer on his blog called Falcoholic. "Were you watching the draft on the grainy TV at the bar? Did you read about it the next morning in the paper? Do you remember if you were overjoyed with the news?"

Vick turned out to be a tease, the blogger went on, displaying both brilliant moments and glaring flaws. But he was always exciting and he always held out hope that "one more year, he's going to get it."

Now, with that hope finally dashed, Dave the Falconer wrote, "I'm pissed off because I'm a Falcons fan who once again has to deal with a team that's being dismissed before the season even starts."

Falcons fans have plenty of experience at coping with disaster and living in hope. In a booth at the ESPN Zone in Atlanta, IT analyst Frank Ellenberger bravely ticked off the positives about this year's edition: "The defense is solid. Harrington's a more accurate passer than Vick. We just need to get Michael Jenkins and some other receivers going. I haven't given up on the team or anything like that."

To Atlanta fans who are also parents, however, the Vick debacle represents more than just another reversal of sports fortune. It's one more tough thing to explain to their kids. There was a time when it seemed like one of every three kids in this city was wearing a Vick jersey. His No. 7 was once No. 2 in NFL player jersey sales nationally. Now, Vick jerseys are as scarce on the street as the Falcons' prospects in the NFL.

At another ESPN Zone booth, Kevin and Mindy Helms enjoyed a plate of chicken wings with their young sons -- but not the Vick news on the TV monitors  on Monday.

"He had all this influence over the kids and the young adults who looked up to him, thinking he was someone important," said Mindy Helms.

Added her husband: "I love sports. I won't turn my back on sports. But you get your kids into sports and playing sports to teach them good habits, then you see something like this happen."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

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