ATLANTA – Michael Vick saw the familiar skyline from the windows of the team bus as it traveled downtown on Saturday, and each turn of the route to the stadium yesterday morning was traced into his memory as well.
Whatever he might have felt about coming back to the city where his NFL career bloomed on the field and then ultimately wilted away from it, Vick couldn't have expected what took place yesterday in the Georgia Dome.
All during the week of practice, Andy Reid told Vick he would score two touchdowns against his former team in this emotional cauldron.
Vick played along. Why not? That would be fine with him.
"We're always saying things about what we're going to do and stuff," said Vick, who didn't have to add that much of the time those things don't happen.
Everything happened yesterday, though. The crowd greeted him with a mixture of cheers and boos, even when he scored a touchdown on a quarterback draw on the first drive of the third quarter.
But as the game got out of hand, heading toward a 34-7 blowout win for the Eagles, the most rabid of Atlanta fans exited the building, leaving behind only Eagles' fans and locals nostalgic for better days. That's when the chant began.
"We want Vick. We want Vick."
Even Reid, usually more phlegmatic than dramatic, couldn't ignore the moment and Donovan McNabb came off the field after the first play of the Eagles' first fourth-quarter drive. Vick came on and, as if he had written the script himself, drove the team to a touchdown, finishing it off with a pass to Brent Celek on a misdirection play.
"When I heard the chants, it made chills go down my spine. It let me know that people here do appreciate what I've done and what I'm able to do moving forward," Vick said.
It was the first time Vick ran for a touchdown and threw for a touchdown in the same regular season game since September, 2006. The cheers from that day in the Georgia Dome faded away long ago, replaced by the crashing sound that accompanied Vick's long fall from grace.
"Everyone deserves a second chance, no matter what happens," McNabb said, "and I think he's relishing the moment right now."
The Eagles are relishing their own moment, too. They have won three straight games and are positioned for a decent run in the playoffs. The offense has kept going despite the loss of Brian Westbrook and the jumbled nature of the offensive line.
As the games grow more important, it will be interesting to find out if Vick will be a regular contributor now, and not just the strange cameo player he has been. It could be that Reid planned to give Vick his day in Atlanta, maybe in reparation for his scant use elsewhere, or it could be that some invisible corner has been turned.
"We've got things in [the offense for Vick]," Reid said. "It's easier when you've got a little flow going in the offense. There's not a set number of plays. We see how things go with a game. If we feel it's the right time we put him in there."
This has been a strange trip for Vick, from Falcon, to jailbird, to Eagle. Anyone would be changed by it, although neither the most ardent supporter nor the most cynical critic can know for sure if Vick's words now are sincere or contrived.
"I want this to be an inspiring story for a lot of kids that things may happen, but you have to persevere, have to overcome adversity and continue to make strides day in, day out, week in, week out, year to year," Vick said. "If you keep pressing forward, good things happen to you, but you have to believe in yourself. I've been waiting for this for a long time."
Well, that much we know is true. It has been a long time. Atlanta team owner Arthur Blank walked to the middle of the field during warm-ups yesterday for a very public embrace of Vick. Just over two years ago, Blank told the public that Vick lied to him and instructed the team's lawyers to sue Vick in an attempt to recover almost $20 million in salary.
All of that seemed forgotten yesterday, and a cheering football stadium is a long way from solitary confinement. Vick's time in Leavenworth was only the first stage of his purgatory. The second stage is this season, as he has endured the publicity that came with his return, and as he has waited for something good to happen on a football field.
He got all of that yesterday in a scenario made for him. A return to Atlanta, against a banged-up football team incapable of staying close. An opportunity for Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg to make all the bother seem worthwhile.
"I'm proud of Mike. He's had one coming to him," Mornhinweg said.
Maybe so, maybe not. That view depends on the viewer. To some, his sins are forgiven. To some, his sins are unforgivable.
"Who cares about what happened in the past?" Vick said.
He was talking about the games earlier this season when he didn't do much, but it is a question that covers a lot of ground for Vick. Does what happened in the past still matter for Michael Vick?
The real answer to that is for the future to decide. But this much is certainly true: It didn't matter yesterday in Atlanta. Not even a little bit.