The day the season changed

Aug. 15, 2003 … on stage inside Georgia Dome

Near the end of the 38th annual Atlanta Falcons Kickoff Luncheon, Vick accepts the 2002 offensive MVP trophy from Reeves and yells into the mic, "Hopefully, I'll see y'all in Texas for the Super Bowl."

"And the next day," says Vick, "I was getting carried off the field."

Aug. 16, 2003 … Georgia Dome just shy of the 10-yard line

Before the Falcons game against Baltimore, Vick has an ominous chat with Ravens 'backer Ray Lewis about making it through the preseason unscathed. Vick hates to have his ankles taped and he never wears ankle braces. But tonight, for some reason, after warm-ups he goes back into the locker room and puts them on.

At 8:35 p.m. (yes, they know the exact time in Atlanta) Vick takes off out of the pocket. Still playing in the second quarter he's not his normal, explosive self. For the first time in his career, Vick admits he is playing not to get hurt. "After Green Bay I was like, 'OK, that's a wrap on preseason'," says Vick, who was 6-of-7 passing for 110 yards, a touchdown and a perfect 158.3 passer rating against Green Bay. "And look what happened." He is hesitant, indecisive even. That allows Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas to close in from behind. His right foot tucks under his leg awkwardly. As Vick falls to the FieldTurf, his ankle snaps like a dry twig.

Thomas stands over him, pleading, "come on man, get up!"

Vick loves to pull himself up off the turf real slow and deliberate -- it's an homage to Hall of Fame back Jim Brown. But at 8:38 p.m., when a cart motors onto the field to pick him up, the entire dome seems to gasp. In 15 minutes x-rays tell the story. Vick, who had never missed consecutive games, is out a minimum six weeks. After sharing a quick cry in the locker room with owner Arthur Blank, Vick's tears turn to anger. "For the first time in my career I was playing not to get hurt, and look what happened," he says. "Before the injury I was on the field wondering why I was still out there. I was very upset about that. I felt like I should have played two possessions, not a whole quarter. Anybody who asks me, to this day-including Coach Reeves -- I'll tell them it was crazy for me to be out there risking injury. They lost me. Lost me for who knows how long."

Aug. 17, 2003 … Vick's home north of Atlanta

Vick heads upstairs to take a shower. "Couldn't do it," he says. His ankle is too swollen and sore to put on the waterproof cover he's supposed to use in the shower. Instead he tries to stand under the water while leaning on just his left leg. In less than a minute the blood rushes to his bad wheel and the ankle begins to swell and throb. Vick gives up and hobbles over to his bed to lie down, elevate his ankle and mope. In 24 hours, he has gone from the game's most explosive player to someone who needs help bathing. Vick spends most of his first two weeks away from the game sequestered in his room, reading, watching Martin reruns and wearing out his PlayStation. His family and friends have come enmasse from Virginia to take care of him. He is grateful for their help. When we sit down to talk about his recovery he is adamant that I include a clear message of thanks to his family. "It was tough man," he says. "I won't say I've been depressed but I've been down, real down. I was looking forward to this year being the year."

The first time he comes back to the Falcons practice locker room, teammate and close friend Keion Carpenter pats Vick on the back and says, "Welcome to the NFL … everybody gets hurt in this league."

Sept. 14, 2003 … Georgia Dome

Yeah, Vick's still got the moves. For two hours before kickoff against the Redskins Vick hobbles around the field near the Falcons bench. He forces a smile for Blank and a little red-headed girl in a Vick jersey. Beginning with Bruce Smith, several Redskins defenders come by to say "hello," as if to feel what it's like to actually grab hold of Vick on the field. Michael Jackson's 'Working Day and Night' blasts from a nearby speaker and while balancing the crutches under his arms, Vick does a crippled variation of the Bird.

The JumboTron then cranks up a montage of his Minnesota game from late last season, the one where Vick turned seven Viking tacklers into purple Wil E. Coyotes to win the game in OT. The shoes he wore during that game are in the Hall of Fame. What covers his foot now is a bulky, heavy black cast. And the juxtaposition of the two images is startling. Vick turns a bit melancholy. He rubs his goatee, shakes his head. The Chapstick comes out. Fellow injured Falcon Brian Finneran offers him some seeds. A punted ball almost hits him, so he hobbles to the side of the field. And when the Falcons hit the field, he's on his cell. Just then another fan dressed in a Vick jersey (the same one everyone in this town seems to be wearing) yells, "Get well soon Mike! We miss you."

Vick nods.

It just doesn't seem right. If you know anything about this kid then you know, after all the work he put in during the offseason, being forced to sit and watch is absolutely killing him. Near the lobby of the Falcons practice facility is a marble and mahogany trophy room that features a life-sized picture of Vick. The showcase has a sign in the window that says: Display Case Contents Under Development. I'll say. And deeper inside there is a red digital clock that hangs from the ceiling near the quarterbacks meeting room. Vick has to pass under that thing several times a day and to him it must seem to be tock-ticking backwards as he waits to get back on the field.

Today he spends most of his time wrapped in a Gatorade towel at the end of the Falcons bench, peppering teammates, like Warrick Dunn, about play calls and defensive reads. "It can eat away at you being away from the game and the team when you're injured," said Dunn. "A lot of times you don't even want to come to the stadium. So I tried to keep Mike involved and interested. Mike would get excited and say, 'Oh, I would do this and I'd do that.' But that's just Mike. I told him, 'I'm sure you would, but right now you're injured and you can't'"

During halftime, Vick stays behind to watch R&B teen queen Ashanti's awkward, choppy two-song set. Afterward she sashays up for a hug. "Hey baby, how you doing?" she purrs. And for the first time, Vick leaves his crutches behind to meet her on the field. He's gimping, yes, but with his chest out.

Lining up for a photo, Ashanti nearly kicks him in the foot.

It's almost "Aww Baby" for real.

Sept. 28, 2003 … Ericsson Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

On the bus to the airport everyone is staring at Vick's feet. This is a monumental day for the Falcons: the kid got his cast off two days ago and for the first time Vick is able to squeeze into a regular shoe. It's the day's only highlight for Atlanta. So far backup quarterback Doug Johnson has a league-high eight picks and one yard rushing on seven carries. His best throw is a two-handed helmet slam in the fourth quarter. When Vick stands next to the team's wideouts in warmups, you can almost sense the longing.

Before the game Vick hobbles across the field, right through where the Panthers defense is warming up. It looks like a slow-mo replay of last season when the Birds beat Carolina by a combined score of 71-0. Today Atlanta will get physically dominated on both sides of the ball. Perhaps when former Steelers safety Lee Flowers said the Falcons were a .500 team without Vick, he was being too generous. Clearly what this team needs is Vick back in the locker room threatening, as he has in the past, to "put a foot in someone's ass." Instead he watches most of the game with a towel over his head.

"When Steve Young and Dan Marino went down, there teams weren't the same. Chemistry changes," says Vick. "Everybody feeds off the quarterback. He controls the whole game, the whole team."

With 2:55 left to play in a 23-3 loss, a spectacular sunset of gold, pink and indigo is taking place, appropriately enough, right behind Atlanta's team bus. Vick is so distraught after the game that he almost forgets his platinum chain with the diamond-studded cross the size of a PopTart. Vick loves long odds. Down by 20 with five minutes to go is the kind of thing he lives for. But even he's beginning to worry about overcoming a 1-4 start. He's hoping the team can muster one or two more wins before he comes back.

Outside by the bus, though, the sky has already turned black.

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