IT FIRST BECAME obvious, this feeling between Michael Vick and his new teammates, a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta. It was his homecoming game, as it were. It was where he scored his first touchdown for the Eagles and his teammates bounded off of the bench in celebration, where cornerback Sheldon Brown said that he and some of the players were telling each other before the game that they wanted to win it for Vick.

I mean, win one for Mike? Really? We all observe from a distance, and it was so hard to see or to understand. But it was real. There is no doubt that it was real, this bond between Vick and his new teammates.

And, now, this:

The Eagles' players have unanimously voted Vick as the team's recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, given annually to the player on each NFL team who exemplifies "commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage."

Guilty of horrific crimes. Sentenced to a federal prison term. Forfeited millions and millions of dollars. Back in the league for only a few months, only through the good graces of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Eagles coach Andy Reid. Now, a convicted felon honored by his teammates for overcoming a terrible situation into which he had put himself.

"I'm not sure you can explain it unless you've gone through it here with him," Reid said yesterday. "Everybody is going to have their opinion on it, I'm sure. Until you've been with him for the hours that his teammates have been with him and seen him through all these different things that he's had to go through, that time-tested part of it, you can't appreciate it quite as much.

"I don't expect everybody to understand it, no, but I think it's a tribute when it's a slam dunk by his teammates voting him that. It was just a unanimous vote there."

That this is just a gut punch to the people who have opposed Vick's reinstatement goes without saying. For them, a PETA spokesman said:

"The Philadelphia Eagles fumbled when they gave Michael Vick the Ed Block Courage Award, which was named after a man who advocated in behalf of abused children. Michael Vick should not be the person anyone points to as a model of sportsmanship, even though he has now exchanged dogs for touchdowns after serving time for extreme cruelty to animals. We wish him well in educating others, but this is not appropriate and does not mark a joyous moment in NFL history."

It is hard to disagree with any of that. It does seem too soon to be celebrating Vick. It does not feel right - and this comes from somebody who thought Vick deserved a chance to play this year, somebody who was looking forward to seeing what he could do on the field.

But here is the thing: I did not get a vote and you did not get a vote. This is a players' award, voted upon by players. And whatever your personal feelings, it is impossible not to be fascinated by this team's embrace of Vick, right from the start.

"I never worried that guys wouldn't accept me," Vick said. "That probably was one of the last things on my mind. The most important thing was to get in here and get to know the guys and get acclimated in the city and playing football again. You just let things happen naturally. You just be yourself."

This is more than just teammates supporting a teammate. It is clear that they like the guy. Talking to them through the season, it is clear that they thought the punishment for the crime was so severe, prison-wise and especially financially, only because Vick was a celebrity. Their inclination as fellow celebrities was to root for him, and as fellow teammates to root for his ability to help them on the field. But the feelings still ended up going deeper, and this award demonstrates it.

"It means a great deal," Vick said. "I've only been in this locker room for 3 1/2 months. For those guys to feel that way about me, it means a lot to me. The bond that I have with the players on this team and the way we've jelled has been outstanding."

Someone asked Vick what kind of courage he demonstrated, per the award.

"I've had to overcome a lot, more than probably one single individual can bear," he said. "Take a look at what I've been through. You ask certain people to walk in my shoes, they probably couldn't do it - probably 95 percent of the people in this world. Because nobody had to endure what I've been through, situations I've been put in, situations I've placed myself in, decisions that I've made, whether they were good or bad. There are always consequences behind certain things and there are repercussions behind them, too. Then you have to wake up every day and face the world, whether they perceive you in the right perspective or it's a totally different outlook on you.

"You just have to be strong and believe in yourself and be optimistic. That's what I've been able to do and that's what I display."

When you talk to Vick, it sometimes takes him a minute to get to the key point: situations I've placed myself in. That is what rankles for some, still, that minute it sometimes takes. But it is all part of a longer process.

Anyway, Vick said, "The thing I told Roger [Goodell] was that, 4 or 5 years from now, when I come to him, I'll be able to say everything I told you I was going to do, I'm still doing it. That's what I pride myself on. That's my focus and that's my goal."

That might have seemed a more appropriate time for an award such as this one, not now. Then again, this is all about a bond within a locker room, a place that none of us can hope to understand from the outside.

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