FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - In a span of less than 20 hours, professional football was reborn in Georgia.
In the eyes of the Atlanta Falcons and their long-suffering fans, Michael Vick represents a savior. How else can you explain more than 4,000 fans showing up for an impromptu party at the team's practice facility to celebrate Saturday's NFL Draft?
With one trade and one simple declaration - "With the first pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons select Michael Vick, quarterback from Virginia Tech." - the spirit of football came alive.
"I feel the Lord has blessed me by sending me to Atlanta," Vick said.
Atlantans should be saying the same thing. The Falcons needed something inspirational to restore the magic that was lost since Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999. They needed Vick and the promise he represents far more than they needed another offensive lineman or defensive tackle.
They needed hope. His name is Vick.
The 20-year-old left-hander stands ready to rewrite the history of Atlanta Falcons football the same way he already helped bury the legacy of moribund drafting practices that have haunted the franchise for most of their 35 years. Anyone remember Aundray Bruce?
"Since I've been here we always hear about other teams doing something special in the draft," Falcons running back Jamal Anderson said. "It's real exciting that for once it's us stepping up to the plate."
The Falcons stepped up big-time at 4:30 p.m. Friday when they dealt the San Diego Chargers the modest price of a third-round pick Saturday, a second-round in 2002 and returner/receiver Tim Dwight for the right to move up four places to the top spot in the draft.
It was a steal.
Vick is one of those special talents that might come around only once in a franchise's history - if it's lucky. The Falcons have never had that player.
"This isn't something even three days ago we thought would happen," Falcons head coach Dan Reeves said. "This is great for the franchise and great for the city, because this is an exceptional talent. This is a young man who comes along just every now an then."
Vick, however, does not come without serious caveats. Experts can't agree on whether his "upside" is worth the downside of his immaturity. Even ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. simultaneously calls Vick "the best athlete to ever play the quarterback position at any level" and "the riskiest No. 1 overall pick I can ever remember."
Vick is raw. He threw for fewer yards passing in his abbreviated college career (3,074) than dozens of NFL quarterbacks throw in a single season. His risky running prowess frightens NFL teams willing to pony up $15 million up front just to watch him mature for a year or two.
That said, the Falcons are salivating over his potential. He possesses sprinter speed, running-back agility and a cannon left arm that can distribute the ball 50 yards upfield with an effortless flick of the wrist.
Now comes the hard part for Reeves and his staff - building a team around Vick so he can be ready to take over in two years. Saturday's one minute of work was a no-brainer.
Picking Vick injected more energy into the Falcons than a dozen winning seasons ever could. Fans on hand Saturday who were not already season-ticket holders were making commitments to join the club.
"This kind of brings (fans) back into the fold," said Anderson. "That's absolutely what we needed in this city."
For that reason alone, Vick is already a miracle worker.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.