PHILADELPHIA - Michael Vick stood under center one more time at the field where he enjoyed some of his finest moments after resurrecting an NFL career that once seemed at an end. Coming out to a warm ovation from a sparse crowd on hand for the Eagles' final preseason game against the Jets, Vick handed off to backup running back Daryl Richardson. Then he stood there a moment as the Jets called timeout to give him a moment in front of the fans who cheered him during his five-year run in Philly.
Nice gesture by Rex Ryan, who gave Vick a one-snap curtain call and a chance to say goodbye and thanks for a mostly successful run in Philly.
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"It was very classy,'' Vick said of Ryan's giving him a chance to be cheered. "You never know what to expect when you're the opposition. It was very warm. I appreciate it. It's a bittersweet feeling being back, but hey, it is what it is.''
Vick came to the Eagles in 2009 uncertain about how this journey would play out. At the time, he was a deeply polarizing figure who only recently had completed a 19-month prison term for his part in a dogfighting ring. Reviled by many, Vick eventually won over most of the fans with a genuine sense of remorse, a commitment to speaking out on animal cruelty -- especially to at-risk youth in the greater Philadelphia area -- and a reawakening of his athletic skills.
"Nothing can ever take away from your experiences, your memories, that you create with your teammates, with an organization that's first-class,'' Vick said. "I appreciated everything that they offered me and everything that I was able to offer.''
A highly divisive figure when he got to Philadelphia, Vick turned out to be one of the great unifying forces for the organization. He was an unquestioned leader, both on and off the field.
Early in training camp last year, when a video surfaced showing wide receiver Riley Cooper screaming a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert in June, it was Vick who settled down a potentially volatile situation with a message of forgiveness. It wasn't immediately accepted by all of his teammates, but it turned out to be a moment of healing that would be critical to the team's success.
Vick and Cooper embraced before last night's game, exchanging kind words two days after the quarterback suggested in an ESPN.com piece that Cooper might not have fully appreciated the support Vick showed last year. The two spoke by telephone on Wednesday to clear up any misgivings. "It's something we talked about and we let it go," Vick said. "We resumed as normal. It was a big moment for us [last year] and it was a big moment for the Eagles . . . We were able to get through that, and here we are today."
The way Vick handled his return from a groin injury last year also was important. Nick Foles played so well that it became impossible for coach Chip Kelly to take him out of the lineup, but Vick never uttered a single word of protest, swallowing his pride and competitiveness for the good of the team.
Vick will never forget his time here, not the relationships with his teammates and coaches and not the warm feelings from most of the fans, who eventually came to forgive him.
"There will always be the sense of gratitude,'' he said. "That'll never change. Nothing could take away the experiences that I shared with that entire organization and my teammates. I have friends on that team that I have for a lifetime. That means more than anything.''