When Evan Engram introduced himself to his childhood football hero, he was dumbstruck by the response.
“Yeah,” former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick told him, “I know who you are.”
Engram was at the 2017 NFLPA Rookie Premiere, an annual event in Los Angeles that brings recent draft picks entering the league together with veterans and former players for a weekend to discuss everything from finances to business opportunities to professional expectations.
Engram, a tight end who had just been selected by the Giants with a first-round pick, was walking through the hotel when he saw Vick sitting by himself, so he approached him to say hello.
“I started freaking out,” Engram said of his reaction to Vick recognizing him. “He was like, ‘I watched you play against Florida State [in the 2016 season opener].’ He said, ‘I didn’t know you were that good, but I started watching that game and I knew you were going to do something special.’ ”
Engram nearly collapsed.
“I had to control my excitement a little bit,” he said. “I was kind of fanboying a little bit. I played it cool, but I fanboyed and started talking too much. I started asking him some questions and he was kind of like, ‘All right, brother, let me get out of here.’
“That’s probably the only person I ever fanboyed — and probably annoyed — who was kind of a big name. But it was really cool to hear those words come out of his mouth. He obviously had no idea and I definitely didn’t tell him that I worshiped him as a kid. I was a really big fan.”
Growing up in Powder Springs, Georgia, about a half- hour outside Atlanta, Engram hardly was alone. At just about the same time Engram was starting to get involved in athletics and starting to recognize that he was good at it, Vick was tearing up the NFL and changing the way people thought about the quarterback position.
The year Vick led the Falcons to a playoff upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field, Engram was in second grade. The year he led them to an 11-5 record, Engram was in fifth grade. The year Vick rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the Falcons, Engram was in the sixth grade.
They were formative years for Engram, and it was Vick who was at the sports center of them.
“Literally everybody in Atlanta was trying to be Michael Vick,” Engram said.
Himself included. He was a quarterback then, a running one just like Vick. While Engram said the playbook basically consisted of two plays — bootleg right or bootleg left, with him scrambling in either direction — he did his best to emulate his favorite player.
Sometimes it was encouraged by his parents, who bought him Vick cleats, Vick sweatbands, Vick jerseys. Engram always wore number 7 in youth football, same as Vick.
But sometimes his parents weren’t too happy about the emulation.
“I remember my dad always cussing me out about ball security because I would always hold the ball out in one hand like he did,” Engram said.
At the time, Engram appreciated Vick because he was exciting and he helped the Falcons win. As he grew older, he started to learn about the doors Vick helped open for a generation of African-American quarterbacks.
“That was a rare thing at the time,” Engram said. “He was that elusive African-American quarterback who had success in the league. Now that I’m older, I realize that was a big thing back then, especially in a city like Atlanta that is predominantly African-American, and especially the inner city. He did so much for us and our city as well.”
Engram probably would have liked to tell Vick all of that when they met on that spring day two years ago. Instead, he morphed into a stammering, excited little kid. Back into the wristband-clad, cleat-wearing, one hand-carrying quarterback he once was.
Vick’s career changed courses quickly. He spent 21 months in federal prison and did not play in 2007 or 2008 because of his involvement in dogfighting. He returned with the Eagles in 2009, played seven more seasons and retired after the 2015 season with the Steelers.
By then, Engram was a star at Ole Miss and on his way to being an NFL player himself.
Every once in a while, though, Engram said he goes back to those years when he and all of Atlanta — and all of the NFL — were mesmerized by Vick. While he’s a tight end for the Giants and his primary job is to catch passes, Engram often will be on the practice field and have an opportunity to throw one, either to a teammate for fun or just to get the ball back to the drill. He never just tosses it casually.
“I try to take a drop like I’m gonna throw it,” he said. “I still try to pretend I’m a quarterback every chance I get.”
And in those daydreams, he’s wearing a red and black number 7 jersey.