He reached for the book. The moment John Abraham heard the news on July 17—he was in the Falcons' facility when his Treo buzzed with this text: "Mike and his friends have been indicted"—he was torn. Part of him felt, like many of his teammates, a degree of betrayal. After all, his quarterback's recklessness had put the entire team's season in jeopardy. But Abraham also felt a connection, as if he'd been in Vick's place and could sense what to do next.
Unsure of how to channel this feeling, Abraham resisted the urge to talk big with his fellow Falcons. It wasn't easy. The defensive end isn't just hungry to restore his standing as one of the game's more feared pass-rushers; he wants to be thought of as a teammate who inspires. And this was a moment that self-fashioned leaders live for, when they can gather everyone to deliver rallying cries. But Abraham knew better. Those speeches are useless in NFL locker rooms. They were useless when Abraham was a Pro Bowler with an alcohol problem who let his teammates down—and they'd be useless now that he was one of many being let down.
So Abraham left the Falcons facility for home, and when he got there he reached for a book: John C. Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. When he was fighting to overcome his own reckless behavior, he turned to self-help books for guidance. Now, as he reclined in bed reading, framed by walls painted Falcons red-and-black, he reconnected with who he aspired to be—hoping that as his team faced its crisis in the coming days, weeks and months, he might quietly show the way forward.
DRINKERS OFTEN retreat to the bottle when life turns dire, and it would be easy to see how the 29-year-old Abraham might feel helpless right now. He came to Atlanta in a trade with the Jets last year, signing a six-year, $45 million deal with the Falcons. But the quarterback he wanted to play with is on his way to jail. And the coach he wanted to play for, Jim Mora, is now an assistant in Seattle. Couple that with Abraham's injury-prone past—he's missed 31 games in seven seasons, including eight last year—and he is a pulled groin away from becoming a journeyman.
But Abraham, sitting in his downtown Atlanta condo—he also owns a house near the team's suburban facility—isn't falling apart. He isn't depressed, or downing a Hennessy and Coke. He is sitting back on a couch that was delivered earlier in the day, looking unbothered. "I don't want this taken the wrong way," he says, "but we were 7—9 with Mike last year."
It's a frank comment from a man who's spent the past few years learning to be honest with himself. And it's hard to argue with the assessment that last season's Falcons were a team that sorely lacked leadership. During a 30-14 loss to the Lions last November, defensive tackle Rod Coleman screamed obscenities at then-defensive backs coach Brett Maxie, who had the nerve to ask Coleman for more effort. And during at least one game, cornerback DeAngelo Hall listened to his iPod on the sideline, tuning out coaches. The Falcons needed Vick to be the leader he was paid $130 million to be; instead, he was the first to leave the complex after practice.
These days, the Falcons are still lacking guidance from within. Darrell Shropshire, one of Abraham's best friends, who was released just before the start of the regular season, refers to the team's psyche as "fragile." But Atlanta might be better off without Vick. At least now they won't be defined by him and his failings. On July 26, the first day of training camp, new coach Bobby Petrino stood before the team and—with the QB's future still hanging in the balance and the team perilously on edge—said, "If you want to talk about Vick, you can come talk to me. Or you can talk about it here."
The room stayed silent, and Petrino and the other coaches left the players alone to air it out. Safety Lawyer Milloy was the first to rise, recalling how in 2001 the Patriots lost Drew Bledsoe and won the Super Bowl anyway. Warrick Dunn spoke too, telling younger players, "Now's the chance for you to make a name for yourself."
Abraham said nothing. He long ago learned that the notion of a team rallying around a comrade in trouble is a myth. Those united-we-stand, fist-pumping chants work in high school, even college, but NFL locker rooms are too complicated and cliquish for that. Besides, even now, neither Abraham nor any other Falcon truly knows which sentiment—"Win it for Mike" or "Win to spite Mike"—would play best in Atlanta's locker room. Spend a few days around the Falcons and you'll hear a lot of players telling you they're not mad at Vick but they know a lot of players who are. Still, at least a dozen others asked Milloy, one of the few Falcons with Vick's cell number, for their ex-QB's digits—only to learn he'd changed them. Then there are those who are worried about on-field issues, like the offense. A day after practice with Joey Harrington calling signals, Shropshire walked by the receivers' lockers and overheard one saying, "I wish Matt [Schaub] were still here."
Abraham says Petrino ran his first pro camp much like a college one, losing free time for extra film sessions and walkthroughs. But if the coach tried to ignore Vick, he eventually had to acknowledge the emotions that ran through the team. So before the Falcons broke the locker room for a Monday night win over the Bengals on Aug. 27—the day Vick pleaded guilty—Petrino told them: "The best way to show Mike we're doing well is to win this game."
It's a message that resonated with Abraham. He knows what it's like to self-destruct, to do stupid things that threaten the team. From the moment he was drafted 13th overall by the Jets in 2000, the former Gamecock was expected to dominate, like a 6'4'', 266-pounder who runs a 4.43 40 should. But like Vick, he didn't have the maturity or conviction to keep himself out of trouble. His descent started when he missed the final 10 games of 2000 with a sports hernia. His rehab was slow, and his outlook wasn't helped by then-GM Bill Parcells passing him in the hallway and sniping, "Can you lift your grandma's skirt yet?"
Until then, Abraham wasn't known as a partyer.
But liberated from game preparation, he joined the vets who went straight from practice to the bars. He drank, mostly Hennessy and Coke but in reality, "whatever was in front of me." He smoked pot, too. And if he stayed out until 6 a.m., he was drinking until 6 a.m. Teammates handing him shot after shot—and women vying for his attention—helped ease the stings he felt at work. "I had low selfesteem," Abraham says. "I needed other people to tell me what to do. If they wanted to go to a club, I'd go."
The partying continued, even when Abraham got healthy. He dozed off in film sessions so often that defensive end Shaun Ellis would answer a coach's questions for his roommate, praying it would go unnoticed. Yet Abraham was still named to the team's 10 Wisemen, the Jets' tribunal of leaders, and elected as a United Way spokesman. He was popular because he was a Pro Bowl player—with 23 total sacks in 2001 and 2002, Abraham went to Hawaii both seasons—who bonded with the club-going crowd. "It was fun, really," Ellis says. "Get done with practice, play video games at home, go have a good time at night."
The fun ended on Oct. 1, 2003. Abraham went to a bar with friends and teammates, then to Gentlemen's Quarters, a club on Long Island. When he left at 10 p.m., Abraham did what he now says is "the stupidest thing I've ever done." He climbed into his 2003 Hummer, and within minutes he crashed into a light pole and fire hydrant. No one was hurt, but Abraham landed in jail with a DWI charge and a blood-alcohol level of .26—more than three times the legal limit of .08.
But it's what happened after his arrest that shapes how he's handling the Vick situation. As a team the Jets publicly supported him, but privately Abraham began to feel isolated. Fewer guys stopped by his locker. His cell rang less. He was dropped from the 10 Wisemen, even though he quit drinking a year after the wreck and was wiser post-arrest than he ever was as a member. When his body started breaking down with various injuries, teammates and coaches thought he was jaking. Abraham remembers injuring his knee in 2004 and then defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson's telling him that he didn't think Abraham was injured at first; the coach told Abraham he thought he was "just being a bitch."
Abraham's credibility was shot. It didn't matter that he completed the NFL's substance-abuse program. Or that he lectured at the rookie symposium about the dangers of alcohol. When Eric Mangini took over the Jets in 2006, he decided.
Abraham didn't mesh with his new regime. "I was alone," Abraham says. "It was my character being questioned, and my situation that everyone on the team was asked about."
Having been the disruption on his old team, Abraham has a unique perspective on what's happening to his current one. And from seeing the way his teammates and coaches in New York treated him, he thinks he knows how to keep this team together. He'll lead in his own way, by influencing a small group of guys in the hope that their positive energy spreads. Abraham often carries one of Maxwell's books in his backpack, pulling it out for reference before meetings. The pages are crinkled and bent out of shape from having been read over and over. He first picked up Maxwell's Developing the Leader Within You in 2005, while in the self-help section of a bookstore. He read between meetings, on the training table and at home, finishing it in four days. "That's why I got better," he says.
He memorizes Maxwell's mantras and recites them to his younger teammates, like the one that says "leadership develops daily, not in a day." As the regular season started, Abraham sent text messages urging his fellow defensive linemen to get into the film room an hour early. He also hosts the D-line at his house for film nights. Instead of sleeping through meetings, he sits in the front row and makes sure the guys don't stretch five-minute breaks into 10. "He's a vocal leader but not a loud one," says defensive line coach Kevin Wolthausen. "So when he says something, guys listen."
The Vick situation has left the Falcons "feeling like we're all rookies," Abraham says. They're starting over, with a first-year coach and a journeyman quarterback. But while it's experiencing something wholly new, Atlanta is not an inexperienced team. With a healthy Dunn and Milloy, as well as tight end Alge Crumpler and linebacker Keith Brooking, Abraham thinks this team will prove to be better than everyone thinks. "Everyone has paid attention to a Falcon, not the Falcons," Abraham says. "We're comfortable with that." The team's immediate goal is to avoid going win less in the first month, which would at least keep the players from bailing on the season. But the Falcons are already off to a bad beginning, losing to the Vikings 24-3 on Sept. 9. That means talk about Vick's absence will persist in the locker room. But Abraham believes that issues are better voiced than unspoken. "The biggest thing is to keep talking about it," Abraham says. "We know we're going to hear about Mike all year. It won't sneak up on us."
Certainly not at Atlanta's Twelve Hotel, where Abraham is lounging with friends on a recent Thursday night. He's drinking Evian, killing time before some rookies swing by to take him and a few other vets to dinner. When he goes to the bar to close his tab, a man behind a beer yells, "You guys aren't going to do anything without Vick!"
"We'll see," is all Abraham says, much as he'd like to say more.