ATLANTA — Three days after he walked out of the gates of Leavenworth Penitentiary, his sentence for dogfighting complete, his life and career in ruins, Michael Vick welcomed a visitor to his Virginia home.
It was Arthur Blank, Falcons owner, who arrived bearing gifts: food from the Atlanta steakhouse Stony River, one of Vick’s favorite restaurants while he was a Falcon. Blank and Vick talked of family, of the past and the future, of lessons learned and lessons missed. The Falcons had released Vick shortly before his prison release, and even though Vick would never again play another down as a Falcon, he remained connected to the franchise on a fundamental level.
“He brought the food, and we sat, and we talked and laughed,” Vick said. “It was never about the past … It was about moving forward from this point.”
“It gave us a chance to be connected as human beings, as parents, as family,” Blank said, “to talk about the future.”
It would take seven more years for that future to arrive. The first steps toward a public reconciliation between the Falcons and Vick came late last season, when Vick and receiver Roddy White basked in the affection of the final regular-season crowd at the Georgia Dome. And the story came full circle on Monday afternoon, as Vick and White formally retired together.
Vick and White were two of the most exhilarating, maddening talents in Atlanta Falcons history. A genre-shattering quarterback and a game-altering wide receiver, they carved a path through Atlanta for more than a decade, their careers overlapping briefly in the mid-2000s. Their careers are impossible to consider without covering their valleys as well as their peaks. While White had his troubles, particularly with Falcons management, few players in NFL history have bottomed out quite like Vick, and Blank, the de facto master of ceremonies, didn’t shy away from referencing Vick’s many dogfighting-related troubles — or, more specifically, his recovery from self-inflicted wounds.
“Life is about learning from mistakes, redemption,” Blank said of Vick. “He is a living example of making a better choice.”
The Falcons drafted Vick first overall in 2000, and Blank bought the team in 2002. The two ascended in Atlanta’s public eye simultaneously, occasionally in questionable moments, as when TV cameras caught Blank pushing the injured, wheelchair-bound Vick on the sideline.
Blank has always preached the idea of the Falcons as a family, of wanting his players to win “the Super Bowl of life” as well as on the field. In Vick, he found his greatest challenge: a phenomenal, once-in-a-generation talent whose demons, and less-than-reputable running mates, cratered his once-astonishing career. But with time came healing, and now, curtains.
Most of the players in attendance dated to the Vick-White era, including Alge Crumpler, Kynan Forney and Jonathan Babineaux. Also slipping in quietly to sit in a back row: the guy who replaced Vick and threw White most of his touchdowns, Matt Ryan. After some opening remarks by Blank, two teammates introduced Vick and White, doing so with style and humor.
“Michael Jackson was the king of pop, he changed the culture,” former Falcon center Todd McClure said. “Michael Jordan was the king of the court, he changed the culture. Michael Phelps was the king of the pool, he changed the culture. And Michael Vick, he was the king of Atlanta. He changed the culture here.”
Former receiver Brian Finneran, meanwhile, summed up White in a few perfect words: “Grit, strength, attitude, power and a little bit of crazy.”
Vick spoke quietly, thanking everyone from Dan Reeves to Rex Ryan to Roger Goodell, repeating again and again his appreciation for everyone who took a chance on him before his troubles became public, and stood up for him afterward. Blank, Vick said, “didn’t know [me] from a can of paint, but he gave [me] an opportunity.”
White, meanwhile — in a move that would surprise exactly none of his coaches — got up to the podium and freelanced, riffing off the cuff and thanking many of the lesser-known gears in the Falcons engine, like the guys who worked in the weight room or hooked up DVDs to help him watch routes in the offseason. (White also thanked former Falcons coach Bobby Petrino, marking the first and only time anyone in Atlanta has ever said anything nice about the coach who slunk out of town after just 13 games.)
Vick retires as the leading rusher in NFL history among all quarterbacks. White, meanwhile, is the Falcons’ leading receiver; his 10,863 yards outpace Julio Jones by more than 2,100 yards. Both were franchise-altering players, and even though they didn’t technically retire as Falcons – Atlanta would have needed to waive a couple players to make room – both are among the franchise’s most remarkable players. (Curiously, amid all the gratitude, Blank didn’t immediately commit to placing their names and numbers in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, noting only that they would be “considered.”)
“I had a great run,” White said, smiling. “As a family, I thank y’all for welcoming me in. I plan to be around y’all forever … Go Falcons.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.