Stars meet at corporate event

Sept. 30, 2003 … Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Ga.

Inside the bucolic Piedmont Park on the north side of downtown (the historic site of the first Georgia-Auburn game), 3,000 American Express cardholders are gathered in a U-shaped grandstand for an event featuring Tiger Woods. The park is a perfect urban oasis, filled with giant oaks, ponds and tennis courts and framed by the canopy of a perfect blue sky. The temporary facility is so immaculate, and the crowd so buttoned down and starched up, you wonder if the Porta-johns have their own attendants.

The event starts at 3 p.m. Vick, who is making a surprise guest appearance and will be throwing a football for the first time since his injury, rolls up at 2:54 p.m. in his white Mercedes SUV with the four-spoke silver rims. (Today he will also announce that he's planning on coming back in two weeks. "I sure hope he's right," responds Dan Reeves.)

By 3:26 p.m. the only sign of Tiger are his clubs, which arrive on their own cart to a smattering of applause. Tiger shows up a few minutes later. It's a pretty cool entrance, though, taken right out of a Slim Shady video. Dressed in a burgundy golf shirt and black pants, Tiger emerges from a crowd of 20 look-alikes to the beat of AC/DC's Thunderstruck.

Tiger is amazingly polished and corporate. He tells a few anecdotes about his mom's red-shirt superstition, how he started out as a lefty because he was mirroring his dad's swing and how he used to play three balls at once, pretending to play Arnold and Jack. Tiger says his 8-iron goes 151 yards. He takes a swing toward the giant AmEx card that serves as the 150 marker. Word comes back. 151. Exactly. Yes, he's warm and articulate, but after a few minutes he also comes across as robotic, joyless and seemingly suffocated by unreasonable expectations. "It's a lonely world," he says into the mic, "when things are going bad."

Although they have provided Vick with a tent to wait in, he wanders out to a speaker column to get a better look. This is, after all, the kind of icon status he covets. Or at least the kind he says he covets. But is this his fate? Trapped? Choreographed? Starched? Sullen?

Not a chance. When they meet and Tiger asks him how fast he is, Vick says he ran a 4.2 40, "but I might be a 4.1 now after I broke my leg." Then, after mimicking Tiger's meticulous pre-shot ritual, Vick rams a putt five feet past the hole and howls with laughter.

"You are such an amazing athlete," says Tiger. "How you do it with those guys coming after you? It's amazing."

"Naw man," shrugs Vick, "making all these putts, I don't know how you do it."

As part of a competition for charity, Tiger will chip and Vick will try to throw footballs into a 5' by 5' box set up 18 yards away. He steps delicately on his first throw and the ball floats past the box. The crowd moans. His second hits the rim. "Come on Mike, get in the hole!" someone yells. All five of Vick's throws are soft and tentative. He hits the box four times, but none go in. Tiger doesn't come close either.

"Mike, you wanna hit a wedge?" asks the emcee.

"Yeah," quips Vick.

"You think it's easy, huh?"

"Sure looks like it."

The crowd roars with laugher.

Vick is unrehearsed. Raw. Real. Relaxed. And funny as hell. "Just being myself," he says. (He is not nearly as polished as Tiger, something that will come to light in a few weeks when his recovery drags on, causing a temporary rift with Reeves). But today, he has quickly stolen the show. When Vick leaves, the kids empty out of the stands to chase his golf cart. Tiger seamlessly goes right back into his pitch … "you know, no matter where you are, Japan, Europe, on tour, Italy, the American Express card speaks a language all its own … "

Out near the parking lot, Vick's white Mercedes rolls up under some shade. The window slides down. "Wassup man? How you doing?" Vick says, leaning out the window, extending his hand. "Uh, hey, you know how I get outta here?"

Yes, Vick has a long way to go to get to Tiger's level.

And thank god for that.

Oct. 1, 2003 … Falcons facility, Flowery Branch, Ga.

Alone inside the Falcons weight room, Vick winces.

He lies on a black weight bench, underneath 185 pounds and rips off 10 reps with little effort. "Let's walk," he says, heading across the rubber floor to a leg curl machine. He sets the pin on 80 pounds. The metal bar of the machine lays right across the tender top of his taped right ankle; the one that was supposed to be ready to go by now. He kicks out 10 reps. And there it is. A look of pain crosses his face. Reeves says he's made a lot of progress the last four days. Today Vick will throw to teammates for the first time and on Saturday he wants to start jogging. "Now that I know I can deal with anything this league throws at me," says Vick, "I know I'm gonna be even more dangerous."

So it's not his bad wheel that's bothering him. It's the damn country music blaring over the weight room speakers that's killing him. Vick lifts to Tupac. Or, in a pinch, some Dirty South. Not this crapola.

Vick sits down for three more rapid-fire sets. His legs shake with fatigue. The machine sits next to a huge window that looks out on the Falcons practice field. "There's still Mike Vick up here," he says, smacking his right palm high up on the glass near the blue sky. Then he lowers his arm and smacks the glass again near the bottom. "And all the other quarterbacks down there. They're all great quarterbacks. But what I do is different."

Vick walks to a drink machine and pours himself a cup of orange Gatorade. But he becomes so animated pretending he's back in the pocket -- ducking imaginary blitzers, bouncing on his feet, patting the ball, air-throwing a bomb -- that he never actually takes a drink.

He is torn now. Torn between wanting to get back and help his team and following the advice he's gotten from most of the 200 people who have called since he got hurt: don't rush it, they say. Make sure to let the ankle heal completely. Even Arthur Blank's message early on was: "Forget football for a second. How do you feel?"

Torn. He feels torn.

First … "I've missed this game so much, you don't even know," he says. "Getting out of that cast was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life."

Then … "But I won't come back until I'm completely ready. I won't come back until I can cut like I used to, at full speed with no worry, no soreness and no fear. And if that doesn't happen? I'm sorry, I'm not coming back this season. I'll be a Falcon for a long time. I have a lot of time to win that Super Bowl."

And back to … "When I get back, if you try to stop me from running, boom, I hit the hot receiver singled up outside. Now try to stop me from passing. Cool. You left the middle open. Bam. I'm gone for a big gain. First down. Let's go. Let's go. Aw, man, football is so much fun."

Vick leaves the cup on the counter, full, and heads to the doorway of the Falcons locker room. He holds the heavy spring-hinged door open with a stiff arm. When you come back, Vick is reminded, teams are gonna test you. They're gonna blitz. They're gonna come hard and with everything they've got. At the end of a recent interview Carolina's defensive end Julius Peppers whispered, "Tell Mike to take care of that leg."

Are you ready for that?

Out comes that electric-Vick smile once again. So much so that you half expect that USAir flight attendant to run up with a fork.

"Oh I love to get blitzed," he says, throwing his head back like a parishioner shouting hallelujah. Noise from his teammates leaks out from behind him in the locker room.

"Write this down: Come after me, test me, blitz me. I invite the blitz. I welcome it. Please. You won't catch me. You still won't catch me."

The words hang there in the air for a while as Vick yanks his head back and out of the way. The door closes. And with a whoosh of air he's gone.

Off to rejoin his team.

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