Commentary

Vick won't find Philly fans easy to please

Updated: August 18, 2009, 12:46 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Michael VickBarbara Johnston/US PresswirePhiladelphia starting quarterback Donovan McNabb, left, says Michael Vick is putting himself in position to contribute to the Eagles.

PHILADELPHIA -- A man with sweat stains on his shirt wants to show you his city. He's standing outside the Eagles' practice facility on one of the hottest days of the summer, tilting his head to the left, then to the right, trying to watch Michael Vick through a black metal gate and nine feet of shrubbery.

Why is Shawn Wells here? Because Eagles fans care deeply about everything. Wells has a substantial tattoo of Underdog on his right arm and a slight chip on his left shoulder. He lives three blocks from Lincoln Financial Field, and his favorite Eagles play, to this day, is Wilbert Montgomery off right tackle for 42 yards in the 1980 NFC Championship Game because, of course, it helped beat the hated Cowboys. Wells' dad died eight years ago, but whenever the Eagles do something special, he still feels compelled to call him.

"I put myself through night school," Wells says. "Whenever I felt down and needed a kick in the ass, I'd go home and watch 'Rocky.'"

It's poetic, really, that one of the most vilified athletes in modern-day history would land in possibly the most passionate sports town in the NFL. It is here, in the City of Brotherly Love, that Santa Claus was pelted with snowballs, Mike Schmidt was booed and cheers rained down on Michael Irvin when he suffered a career-ending spinal-cord injury. It's here, in the backdrop for the movie "Rocky," that fans don't just demand everything from an athlete's perfectly toned arms and legs. They want their hearts, too.

If Vick can survive in Philly, after 18 months in federal prison for running a dogfighting ring and two years out of football, observers say he'll be ready to reclaim his place in the NFL. First, though, he has to get out of the NovaCare Complex. Reporters are lined up for 55 yards along the practice field, calculating every move of Vick's first practice with the team. Supporters and protesters with cleverly written signs are waiting outside.

What do Philadelphians expect from Michael Vick? What can Vick expect from them? That answer is as diverse as a city that has $2 million condos on one block and low-income housing projects on the next.

Wells volunteers to take a drive around this town because he doesn't want outsiders getting his beloved city wrong. No, he says, Eagles fans are not just hard-core nasty. They have depth. Wells teaches high school English on weekdays, drives a cab on Sundays and wants to get moving. He needs to get up at 3 a.m. to go to work.

Pat's King of Steaks, South Philly

A gray-haired man named Johnny says he's done. He's a night employee at one of the most popular cheesesteak joints in Philadelphia, he's followed the Eagles for more than 30 years, but Johnny says he can't support them now that Vick is here. He says he's an animal lover, and calls what Vick did to dogs "pathetic."

"I'll go to Dallas before I watch another Eagles game," he says. "He's a piece of s---."

Johnny closes a back door to the restaurant and returns to work. The bar crowd is streaming in.

For 72 hours, since word of Vick's signing hit Philadelphia, fans of all demographics have threatened to either cancel their tickets or turn in their green jerseys. Others smile and roll their eyes at that notion, knowing they'll be back come the second Sunday in September. They can't stay away, in good years and bad.

A few feet away from Johnny's rant, a table full of 30-something Drexel grads are gnawing on French fries between a bar run and their fantasy draft. Nobody in the group drafted Vick, and they're skeptical of another possible bad seed infiltrating their Eagles.

"You saw what happened to Terrell Owens here," Erin Neary says. "[Two] years, and he was out. I guess time will tell [with Vick]."

Somewhere on a cell phone in the greater Philadelphia area

Mitch Williams answers late Saturday, and hesitates when he finds out the conversation is about to focus on Vick.

Williams
Bill McCay/Getty ImagesFormer Phillies pitcher Mitch Williams, right, has one critical piece of advice for Vick: Play as hard as you possibly can.

Williams knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of angry Philly fans. Sixteen years ago, after he picked up the loss in Game 4 of the highest-scoring game in World Series history, Williams received death threats. He was traded to Houston the next season, and the public perception outside Philly was that Williams was run out of town.

"That's where people were wrong," Williams says. "My first trip back in here when I was with the Astros was Memorial Day weekend. And every time I walked out of the dugout, I got a standing ovation. They've always treated me good here. They just don't like excuses. If you fail, you fail; just don't make an excuse."

Williams moved back to the area in 2001, works as an analyst for the MLB Network, and rarely pays for a drink when he goes out.

He loves the passion of Philadelphia fans, and has this theory that the further West you go, the more blasť it gets. He'd watch Dodgers fans stroll in around the second inning and leave in the seventh. For people on the East Coast, Williams says, a game is not a social event. It's part of their lives.

"If you want to be lied to and put up on a pedestal every time you go out there, even when you stink, you don't want to come to Philly," Williams says. "If you want to hear the truth, you'll love playing in Philly. I've always said that they couldn't say anything about me that I hadn't said about myself on the way back to the dugout.

"I love the people here in Philadelphia, and they knew every time I went out there, they got everything I had that night. And that's all they ask for here. If I was going to say one thing to Michael Vick, it would be come here and play as hard as you can possibly play and you'll never have a day's problem in Philadelphia."

Maytag Coin Laundry, North Philly

Three African-American men are in a laundromat roughly a mile north of Temple University, arguing about politics and race and Michael Vick.

George Rodney Chisholm holds court on the discussions. He's 63 years old and drove a school bus in his younger days. He says the Vick issue is split in Philadelphia between black and white, and that many African-Americans, like himself, believe he deserves a second chance. He's lived in Philadelphia for 35 years, and likes the diversity of it, how the neighborhoods can change from African-American to Italian or Hispanic within a few blocks. He's never been to an Eagles game because he's on a fixed income.

But he'll watch Vick, a man whom he believes is decent but was swayed by outside influences and bad friends.

"He was raised to play football," Everett Hannah, Chisholm's friend, chimes in. "If you take that away from him, what's he going to do?"

Philadelphia has a history involving quarterbacks, race and controversy. Donovan McNabb, selected No. 2 overall by the Eagles in the 1999 draft, has been booed -- and some would say he still hasn't won over this city, even after five Pro Bowls, four straight NFC East Division championships (2001-04), five NFC Championship games (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008) and a trip to Super Bowl XXXIX.

Lavar Smith, a younger man who's drying his clothes, loves McNabb and listens to the older men talk as he reads a newspaper with Vick on the front page. He disagrees with just about everything they're saying, and lets out an occasional "Awwww, man!" from across the room. Smith is worried about how the acquisition affects the depth chart, and whether Vick will make things difficult for McNabb.

But he's hungry for a winner. He was there last year when two million fans showed up for the Phillies' World Series victory parade. He loved it when Chase Utley shouted "WORLD CHAMPIONS," especially when he blurted out an expletive in the middle of it, because it summed up a city's sense of relief and pride after so many years of frustrations.

"This town is rabid about their sports," Chisholm says. "I don't give a damn what color, race or creed you are. When these teams are winning, everybody is one."

Baggataway Tavern, Conshohocken

A short story from a month ago: Eagles camp was just starting, longtime defensive coordinator Jim Johnson died from melanoma, and the city, for a few hours, stopped.

Happy hour at various bars and restaurants became silent vigils for Johnson. Brian Devaney was eating at the Baggataway when the music was turned off and the entire place gravitated to the TV screens. For the next couple of hours, patrons swapped Johnson memories and toasted him with shots of Irish whiskey.

In most NFL cities, they idolize the quarterback and make him the face of the franchise. Philadelphians identify most with the team's defense.

Perhaps the most beloved Eagle in recent memory was Brian Dawkins. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl safety, the heart and soul of the defense. Dawkins could be seen on the sidelines during the playoffs, firing up the offense and defense, welling up with tears after the Eagles beat the Giants last winter. The fans loved that.

When the sports radio shows light up with callers angry about Vick, the conversation occasionally will drift back to Dawkins. Fans are still fuming that "Dawk" is gone, that their safety is wearing a Denver Broncos helmet. It should be noted that Dawkins left nearly six months ago.

"We don't love easy here," says Brian Devaney, who was at the Baggataway Tavern that night they toasted and mourned Johnson. "But when we do, you have us for a lifetime."

There are varying opinions as to why Philadelphia appears, on the outside, to have a chip on its shoulder. And maybe this is where Vick can relate. It's a blue-collar, working-class community, one that firmly believes it has an active ownership in its teams.

It's a city that is rarely satisfied, constantly clawing for its place between New York and Washington, D.C.

Rittenhouse Square Park, Center City

The dog walkers in this upscale part of town are conscientious and rarely forget to scoop. A greyhound frolics in a fountain, a bulldog lounges in the sun, and Alex Shelmire plops down on a bench with a sandwich and his golden retriever, Izzy.

[+] EnlargeAlex Shelmire
Elizabeth Merrill for ESPN.comAlex Shelmire, hanging out with his dog, Izzy, says he thinks Vick will be accepted - over time.

Shelmire isn't going to launch into an anti-Vick conversation. He believes Vick has served his time, though he still doesn't understand how a multimillionaire could consider dogfighting as an outlet.

But Shelmire still can't figure out why the Eagles signed him. Vick isn't a good fit for the offense, he says, and the Eagles already have too many quarterbacks.

He wonders if the team did it for publicity. Shelmire left his hometown to go to college at USC a few years back, and thinks Philly fans "take things a bit too far here." He'd sit at Dodgers games in Phillies gear and leave safe and relatively unscathed. He says if he wore a Dodgers hat in his hometown stadium, he'd probably be assaulted.

"Do I think Vick will get booed in Philly?" Shelmire says. "We boo McNabb. We boo everyone. But I think he'll be accepted. He'll just be accepted over time."

1818 E. Tusculum St.

On Sundays, for no extra charge, Wells will give out-of-town customers the "Rocky Tour." He'll steer his cab toward Tusculum Street, near the fictional gym where Rocky trained, and stop the car so they can hear the roar of the El overhead. He'll pepper them with movie factoids throughout the ride, how it was filmed in 28 days and that the Eagles use a Rocky montage on the big screen to get the crowd amped up.

Balboa
Getty ImagesHe's a fictional sports hero, but "Rocky" has come to represent the grit and determination of this town.

Wells believes Philadelphia was a main character in that movie, which is more than 30 years old but still prompts people to run the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and hum "Gonna Fly Now."

It is nearly 10 o'clock on Saturday night, and a group of teenagers is standing outside the gritty brick building where Rocky's character lived and where part of the film was shot. The teens take pictures and stare for a minute. John Mitchell lives here now with his wife, and they still get strangers who come by and ask for a tour.

Of course Mitchell is an Eagles fan. He cheered in front of his TV that day in 1999 when Irvin went down.

"I was happy as hell," Mitchell says. "I was hoping he'd never catch a ball again. The only other thing I was wishing was that it happened to Emmitt Smith. My wife thinks it's sick."

But Mitchell doesn't. Philadelphians are passionate about anything they believe in: their family, their country, their football. He pokes his head out of an old storm door that he says was used in the movie. Down the street, every home has at least one American flag flapping in the wind.

"Vick has to be really careful of what he says," Mitchell says. "When he gave that press conference, it didn't seem like he was reading off a script. It came from the heart.

"He needs to work with the ASPCA and rebuild his reputation. It can't just be words. In this town, it's about performance.

"We expect a lot."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.