In the din and blur surrounding the Michael Vick saga, I can't help but return over and over again to one scene from a few years back. It was the opening weekend of the 2003 NFL season, and the Falcons were in Texas Stadium, preparing to meet the Cowboys without their Pro Bowl quarterback. Vick had snapped his right fibula during a preseason game three weeks earlier, and he was still wearing a black nylon-and-Velcro walking cast. Instead of making his way to the sideline on crutches, though, Vick emerged from the visitors' tunnel in a wheelchair pushed by a man with a tailored suit, gold cufflinks and what can only be described as an inappropriately giddy expression.
It was Falcons owner Arthur Blank. And the only thing odder than his expression was the fact that Vick had the exact same look on his face. Despite the injury, both men still felt the NFL was theirs for the taking. Neither seemed to recognize that, somewhere on the sideline that day in Dallas, they rolled over a line, blurring the boundary between owner and player. Blank and Vick looked far more like business partners and close friends. In retrospect, Vick's precipitous fall from national icon status to federal indictment may have begun with that little push from his boss.
The 27-year-old now faces a maximum of six years in prison for allegedly running a multistate dogfighting ring. Meanwhile the Falcons, left to suffer the fallout from the allegations, opened training camp on July 26 in disarray. They've got a rookie NFL head coach running the team, a backup quarterback calling the signals and protesters picketing outside the facility. That image from Dallas, comical and harmless at the time, is now a fitting symbol for a cautionary tale warning against the kind of megadeal that gives a player like Vick enough power to wreck a franchise.
Until that photo was taken, Blank had pretty much done everything right as an NFL owner. After retiring in 2001 from the Home Depot, which he co-founded, Blank spent $545 million to purchase the Falcons, a team with an apathetic fan base and no identity. To fix that, he infused the floundering franchise with his high-profile and hands-on style, despite warnings from owners like New England's Bob Kraft that public scrutiny would make his approach difficult. He slashed ticket prices, offering 10,000 season tickets for $100. He had the Georgia Dome parking lots made more conducive to tailgating. The uniforms were updated. And the already state-of-the-art practice facility was upgraded.
By 2003, Blank's DIY renovation had transformed the Falcons into a first-class franchise. Atlanta was back in the playoffs, and the Georgia Dome was sold out for the second straight season, following a decade of empty seats. And Vick had become the centerpiece of Blank's reclamation project. Any promotional idea or marketing campaign that did not prominently feature him was rejected. The owner even referred to Vick as his surrogate son, regularly inviting him to his Buckhead estate, where Vick played video games with Blank's six "other" kids.
A little creepy, sure, but Blank and the Falcons were just doing what every team does to some degree: pampering and protecting their biggest investment. "It's impossible for an owner to be too close to his players," says Colts owner Jim Irsay. "That's like telling a parent they love their kids too much. This job is fun. That's not bad. And the best part is being around the guys, sharing this with them and doing special things for them. Getting to know our players has been the highlight of my life."
In fact, during the past two decades, the NFL's most successful teams have been led by owners who make Blank look downright cold. Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the 49ers during their 1980s dynasty, was generous to a fault with contracts, handed out Rolex watches as though they were business cards, and allowed his private jet to be used like a taxi. In 1997, when Steve Young suffered a concussion in Tampa, DeBartolo was so distraught he had to prop himself against a wall of the stadium to keep from collapsing. Meanwhile, since buying the Cowboys in 1989, Jerry Jones has won three Super Bowls while mingling with his players on the sideline more than most special-teamers. Even the most dignified and seemingly detached owners, like the revered late Giants patriarch Wellington Mara, regard their players as family. Ask Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor who stood by him at the lowest point of his life, when no one else would, and he'll say Mara.
But the charges against Vick— which include the alleged torture and execution of dogs—inevitably lead to questions about the way our superstar athletes are treated. And, in a society where dogs are considered family and often cared for better than the homeless, we want answers, and more important, we want someone to blame.
Like everyone else, Blank was mesmerized by Vick's electrifying physical gifts. He also saw a 23-year-old kid who had the potential to become a unifying sports icon in a racially charged town. If Blank is guilty of anything, it's believing too strongly in the power of sports mythology and Vick's ability to live it. "There was no indication, no sign, no whisper of that type of behavior," Blank says. "That [person in the indictment] is not the person I've known the past six years."
Blank wasn't the only one who didn't see that side of Vick. None of us did. Maybe that's as upsetting as the details of the allegations. We barely know the athletes we worship. Our sycophancy lets these guys hide in plain sight, free to create new and more bizarre ways to disappoint and shock us. It seems impossible now, but in 2003 Vick was on the verge of becoming the Michael Jordan of the NFL. For the cover story of
The Mag's NFL preview that season, Vick had agreed to let me chronicle what he was calling "My Summer Working Toward Greatness." Those were halcyon days for Vick, and to celebrate his first trip to Hollywood—for that year's ESPYs and to shoot a Nike commercial—he flew his entire family with him in first class. They ate shrimp scampi and watched Bend It Like Beckham. Reclining in his seat, tucked against a window with a blanket covering his legs, Vick talked about how his mom used to work double shifts every December to pay for Christmas. During the filming of the commercial, on a soundstage in Culver City, 29 people hovered around him, catering to his every whim, offering brand-new, white beach towels every time he sneezed. Between takes, Vick killed time by telling stories about growing up in Newport News, Va., where he used to make money as a 9-year-old by betting passersby $10 he could throw a football over his house.
That September, at a golf exhibition in Atlanta, I watched Vick upstage Tiger Woods. While Woods came off as stiff, distant and choreographed, Vick kept the crowd in stitches. "Mike, you wanna hit a wedge—you think it's easy?" asked the emcee. "Yeah," Vick answered with a confident, childlike grin, "sure looks like it." Despite the response he got, Vick later asked me several times if he had done okay. He was soft-spoken, humble even, and there was an unmistakable charm to him. He was the real deal. Or so I thought.
Just days later, though, when I met up with him while he lifted weights alone in the Falcons' weight room, something had changed. It had been a little less than two months since he broke his leg. Yet, with pressure mounting for him to return to the Falcons' lineup and save the season, Blank had told him, "Forget football for a second. How do you feel, Mike?" Looking back, I think Vick misinterpreted Blank's compassion to mean that, because the owner had his back, he could do, or say, whatever he wanted. That included being openly critical of his coach, Dan Reeves. "It was crazy for me to be out there risking injury during the preseason," Vick hissed that day. "They lost me. Lost me for who knows how long. I won't come back until I'm completely ready. And if that doesn't happen? I'm sorry, I'm not coming back this season."
Vick did return for the last month of the season. But by then Reeves was being pushed out the door. The message was clear: Blank was putting the franchise's fate in the hands of his novice QB rather than those of his Super Bowl coach.
Blank started the Home Depot in 1978 after he and co-founder Bernard Marcus were fired from the Handy Dan company, a chain of home improvement stores. So he's a believer in—maybe a sucker for—second chances, forgiveness and redemption. Still, to think that he built a Fortune 500 company, retired and then turned into a TRL audience member in the presence of Vick is a stretch. "Arthur Blank is no mamsypamsy," says Allison Vulgamore, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, of which Blank is a longtime supporter. "Arthur is a calm giant who, trust me, can ask the tough questions when he has to."
When it came to Vick, though, Blank chose not to, until it was too late. By giving Vick a 10-year, $130 million contract in 2004, Blank essentially made him a minority owner of the team. Vick was virtually uncuttable and unaccountable. They had no choice but to do what he asked. When Vick said he needed more talent at wide receiver, the Falcons burned two first-round picks on pass catchers. Different coaches were brought in, new schemes were installed. In the end, though, Blank was able to change everything about the Falcons except Vick.
He had begun to hold the Falcons hostage, and the team was showing the effects of Stockholm syndrome. This past February, after a 2006 in which Vick settled out of court with a woman who said he knowingly gave her genital herpes and flipped off Falcons fans after a loss to the Saints, Blank told the Atlanta Press Club, "We're proud of Michael. He's obviously a great player, and he's a very fine person."
Blank would now probably say he's neither. The owner was out of the country when the charges hit on July 17, and after returning to his ranch in Montana and getting up to speed on the accusations, he had to be talked out of suspending Vick right on the spot. Roger Goodell prevented the team from taking any disciplinary action, and ordered Vick not to show up to camp while the league conducted its own investigation. Still, listening to Blank at his July 24 press conference, it was clear he'd prefer Vick stayed away even longer—if not for good. The man who built an empire off a second chance refused to offer the slightest bit of hope for the QB's return to his team. "Just like you do with your kids, sometimes this job requires tough love," says Irsay. "If it's best for the whole team, sometimes you have to say goodbye to a player—even if you're hurting inside the whole time you're doing it."
Two days later, Vick pleaded not guilty in a Richmond, Va., court. And while the normally composed-looking Blank appeared disgusted and embarrassed at his press conference, Vick emerged from the courthouse looking older, more defiant and more real than he ever has. The contrast between those two pictures of Blank and Vick and that one from long ago in Dallas was startling. Neither would ever be as happy as they once were.
Then again, when you're going through an ugly breakup, no one ever is.