Vick a hit at ESPYs

In the first installment of Michael Vick's diary, the Atlanta QB attends the ESPYs in his first trip to Los Angeles.

Updated: November 24, 2003, 2:15 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

July 13, 2003 … Somewhere over Tennessee
This is Vick's first trip to L.A. and he looks the part with a vintage Phil Simms N.Y. Giants jersey, a throwback Phillies hat, red Air Force Ones and a rolled up copy of Source. Vick hates to be alone. (It's a trait that will make his injury even more torturous.) And that's why half of first class is filled with his family and friends. The summer has been so hectic that with 10 days left before camp, Vick is just now taking his first (albeit working) vacation.

So just after takeoff, he's calm and relaxed and, like everyone else up here, trying hard not to bust a gut. See, the disheveled flight attendant in first class resembles one of Cheri O'Teri's wigged out characters on SNL. In fact, the only time she stops for even a second is when Vick, needing a new fork for his shrimp scampi, turns on the charm. Head back and cocked to the side. Eyes pinched. The corner of his mouth curled up in a soft smile. It's the look that will soon launch a thousand pitches.

Bingo. Everything stops. A new fork is rushed over to 3B. And you get the feeling that if need be, the woman will force an emergency landing to get Vick his fork.

Editor's note
Michael Vick gave his last offseason a working title: 'My Summer Working Toward Greatness', he called it. After his first full year as a starter in the NFL not many could argue.

In 2002, Vick's revolutionary style, his electrifying feet and his cool mastery of the position netted him 2,936 yards, 16 touchdowns, a Pro Bowl bid, a place in Canton (for his shoes) and a spot in history as the first visiting quarterback to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field. He wasn't just working toward greatness. Vick was on the verge of becoming our next transcendent athletic icon. His jersey flew off store shelves. Companies lined up for his endorsement. During free agency, when Vick said 'Sign some players,' Atlanta owner Arthur Blank said, 'How many?' Naturally, we wanted to tag along to document the ride -- and Vick agreed.

Then, just three days before his photo shoot for the cover of The Mag's NFL Preview (the third cover story that we had worked on together), Vick crumpled to the floor of the Georgia Dome clutching his right ankle. Broken fibula. Instantly, the Falcons were no longer Super Bowl favorites. Vick was on crutches and off the NFL radar screen. Everything had changed. Except my assignment.

Throughout the summer and continuing on through the first half of the 2003 NFL season -- from Los Angeles to Chesapeake Bay, from South Carolina to Georgia to North Carolina and back again (many, many times I might add) -- I was there documenting every, sometimes gimpy step of a Summer of Working Toward Greatness that had turned into Mike Vick's Lost Season. This is the first of my four-part diary.
-- Flem

During dinner, Vick talks softly with his mother, Brenda Broddie, who is sitting across the aisle from him. She is in for a treat in L.A. shopping: spas, gourmet meals -- the works. "I owe her my life," he says. "She is everything. So when I get a chance to do something nice for her -- I do it first class, I do it all the way."

The coolness in the clutch, the will to win, Vick says he gets it all from the woman in 4F. About 15 years ago, Vick's family was burglarized just days before Christmas. Brenda marched down to a day shop where you wait, sometimes for hours, before being assigned a temp job, like cleaning hotel rooms -- for instant cash. She never panicked. Never complained. She just raised the money and bought the toys all over again. "She refused to let us have a bad Christmas," says Vick. "The idea that no obstacle is too big, you know, down by 20 with 5:00 to go and you better not let me touch that ball -- I inherited that from her."

After the scampi, he switches to the window seat and tucks himself under a blue blanket during the in-flight flick, Bend it like Beckham. They share the same number (7) Vick and Beckham, and one wonders if Vick is, right now, jetting toward the same kind of international superstardom. (Next summer will the in-flight movie be, Flick It Like Vick?) Judging by the constant stream of passengers who seem to be lining up every few minutes to relieve themselves (but only in the forward Lav) the answer seems to be, "yes."

But the gawking makes Vick uncomfortable. He leans against the window, pulls his hat down and snoozes the rest of the way. He wakes only once, when the line from the movie: "Get your lesbian feet out of my shoes!" cracks up the passengers sitting around him.

The plane eventually descends toward the Pacific Ocean and the setting sun makes the mountains look as if they are on fire. The cabin rumbles. The seatbelt sign goes on. Still, passengers scurry by just to watch Vick sleep.

"Wow," whispers one after stepping through the curtain. "He's just a kid."

July 15, 2003 … Culver City, Calif.
Vick's pants are falling down. It is almost noon at a sound stage south of L.A. where Vick is shooting a top secret computerized Nike commercial with San Francisco wideout Terrell Owens to coincide with the August release of his very own shoe. (This is the first time in three years that Nike has allowed a reporter in to one of its commercial shoots.) Today is the last of what has been a summer of shilling for Vick. Sensing that his Q rating is about to skyrocket, companies like EA Sports, Hasbro, Coke, Kroger and Kraft all lined up and (for between $250,000 and $750,000 a pop) latched onto Vick's vapor trail. His schedule got so hectic, however, that at one point during the spring he temporarily canceled everything, including this story.

"I do get tired of all this," he says while changing into wardrobe inside a cramped closet where his shorts hang over a filing cabinet. "But then I think about it and I wonder, 'How many other people in this world and in this game, wouldn't want to be me?' "

At this moment, not many. The craft services table must be 30 feet long, complete with sweetheart roses and eight kinds of mints. During lunch, an assistant comes by and holds his phone up to Vick's mouth just so the guy's girlfriend can listen to him chew. Later, there are, no joke, 29 people standing around Vick, furiously reacting to his every move. The instant he sneezes two brand new bath towels are offered up for proper, dignified, disposal of his snot. And for the last 10 ticking-time-bomb minutes, wardrobe cannot seem to secure the belt that holds up Vick's football pants. One woman in army pants, with a hanger tucked under one arm, is on her knees in front of Vick yanking on the belt while another woman, her green T-shirt soaked in sweat, is tugging furiously from behind.

There is a conference. Vick's agent is called in to help. Then more tugging. More yanking. More sweating. Someone actually growls. Time stands still. T.O. shot his scenes yesterday or he'd probably be in the mix as well. Finally the room exhales as -- zzzzzzpth! -- the belt problem is solved.

Vick is first scanned by a red laser. And he's not supposed to move a muscle during the scan. But he recognizes someone in the crowd and waves, 'Wassup?' No one says a word. They just start the scan all over. Vick checks out his image on the computer screen, then he is escorted to the middle of a giant room where a blue floor is surrounded by dozens of computers on desks and even more cameras hanging from the ceiling. The cameras' red laser eyes make it look as if Vick is surrounded by serpents. Wearing something that looks like a scuba suit decorated by pingpong balls, Vick begins by running a play-action pass for the director that includes an improvised bit of scrambling where he actually goes down to one hand to regain his balance.

The director gasps with delight. Wardrobe hugs. The union guys stop moving chairs and tables and just stare. The assistant with the bath towels stands at the ready like a Wimbledon ball boy.

The rest of the world may wait for Vick to raise the Lombardi Trophy before crowning him King of the NFL.

But in L.A., he's already been anointed.

July 16, 2003 … Los Angeles, Calif.
Joe Morgan is frozen in his tracks. It's still almost two hours before showtime, but the red carpet festivities at the 2003 ESPYs are in full Hollyweird whirl outside L.A.'s Kodak Theatre. A host of athletes and celebs are all working the rope line with a dizzying mélange of hi-fives and air kisses as host Chris Connelly screeches breathlessly into a mic stuff you can only hear at this event: "She loves sports and you love her … Penny Marshall!!!"

Michael Vick
Vick
Vick, however, is tucked away from the tempest inside the cave-like foyer of the theatre, sitting by himself on a faux marble bench in front of a Neuhaus Chocolatier store. Crammed onto the store's other bench are four other members of Vick's family, including Brenda who is wearing a black, strapless diamond-studded dress with matching bracelet and earrings. "Oh I'm just so proud of him … so proud," she repeats like a mantra.

Standing on the other side of the velvet rope, a middle-aged couple decked out in formal wear and matching gray hair, begs Vick for a picture. He waves them in. At that very moment Morgan and his crew nearly walk into the shot. But he sees Vick, throws out his arms like a school crossing guard and halts foot traffic until the bulb flashes. Then the Reds' Hall of Famer and ESPN color analyst slips in and introduces himself to Vick, who was drafted by Colorado in the 30th round of the 2000 MLB draft even though he hasn't played ball since the eighth grade.

"Pleasure to meet you Mike," says Morgan.

"You too, yoo too, for real," says Vick.

This is all so new to Vick. He's the one they all want to see. His intro from Connelly drew more applause than Dr. J, Vivica A. Fox and Ben Stiller combined. Yet here he is sitting alone, his diffidence once again mistaken by many for aloofness. "What has surprised me the most about the NFL," he says on the way in, "is I thought the road would be harder, you know, bumpier."

Up until now, he's right, football has been a breeze. It's all this other stuff Vick has to work at. If not, why would the guy who says he wants to be the Michael Jordan of the NFL be sitting in here, away from the crowds, practically in the dark? You know M.J. would be out there working the red carpet … hard.

But Vick is different and that's a conflict he will eventually have to work out. The first thing he told coach Dan Reeves when he got to Atlanta his rookie season was, "I want to be great, not famous."

After the show, Vick arrives late at the exclusive ESPY after-party, but doesn't stay long. Wind-swept rooms, divided by hanging white linens give the Highlands Hotel a dream-like feel. Somewhere Chuck D of Public Enemy is swearing he can fix baseball and Serena Williams is sharing her exfoliation secrets. But Vick is "worn out" says a friend and "really, just wants to go home."

After seeing all this, and with 2003 training camp just six days away, you wonder: is Vick more Barry Sanders than Emmitt Smith? Could you see him at the zenith of his talent and popularity in, say, five years, just walk away from the game, pull up the lines on his fishing boat, Bad News, and never be heard from again?

In other words, is he one of those guys who will change the NFL and not the other way around?

Absolutely.

Just as long as he stays healthy.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.

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