American Football: Why Vick the quarterback can be the Michael Jordan of the NFL

The obscure hamlet of Flowery Branch, 40 miles to the north-east of Atlanta along Interstate 985, is an unlikely venue for a sporting pilgrimage. There is little there, save for a petrol station, supermarket and, somewhere deep within this heavily forested corner of Georgia, the training camp of the Atlanta Falcons American football team.

The obscure hamlet of Flowery Branch, 40 miles to the north-east of Atlanta along Interstate 985, is an unlikely venue for a sporting pilgrimage. There is little there, save for a petrol station, supermarket and, somewhere deep within this heavily forested corner of Georgia, the training camp of the Atlanta Falcons American football team.

To find it, ask directions from the man at the garage. "Ah," he says, "you must be here to see Michael Vick. Have they heard of Michael over in England?" Not yet, perhaps, but we've heard of Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, and one day it is entirely possible that the 24-year-old Falcons quarterback will assume a place among the élite who have transcended the boundaries of their sport.

As Atlanta's head coach, Jim Mora, explained: "Michael has a charisma about him. The way he looks in his uniform, the way he carries himself. You know when they say someone's got it? Well, whatever it is, Michael's got it." Or, as the general manager, Rich McKay, put it: "He's a rock star playing American football."

On Saturday night - the early hours of Sunday morning here - Vick will take what many believe will be his first legitimate steps to superstardom, when he leads his Falcons into play-off action against the St Louis Rams. Victory will put him one game away from the Super Bowl.

The match is a guaranteed ratings winner, but then Vick has been box office ever since his career began in 2001, when he replaced the stumbling, leaden-footed Chris Chandler, and captivated a Georgia Dome crowd with an electrifying cocktail of dazzling runs and tracer-bullet passes. He was raw and undisciplined, but anyone with the slightest knowledge of the gridiron game knew they were witnessing the embryonic development of a unique talent.

Traditionally, the quarterback was his team's field general, asked to provide leadership, and pick out receivers with accurate passes. The position has evolved with a new generation who could not only throw, but could run with the ball as well. Vick threatens to define the position further.

"I don't do what a typical quarterback does. I do other things," he explains without a trace of arrogance. "I'm able to use my legs and athletic ability to make plays. I've got a big-time arm, I've got the brain to play, and I have the legs, so it's a three-in-one package."

Vick's debut season consisted of little more than a collection of startling cameos. In 2002, he began to hone his skills, but development was cut short by a pre-season broken leg, which destroyed his hopes for 2003.

When the current campaign began, the Falcons had a new coach in Mora, and his greatest challenge was to harness the explosive potential of his gifted, yet still erratic playmaker. Mora's solution was a low-risk passing attack, which would still allow Vick to run. The system is complex and technical, but Mora has been impressed with Vick's willingness to learn.

"From day one, he showed an unbelievable commitment to the programme," Mora said. "He turned up every morning at 7.30am, never late, and just worked with our coaches. He wants to be great, and he's prepared to do the work. They say everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Well, Michael's willing to die a little bit."

American sports are obsessed with statistics, but with Vick, number-crunching requires a little spin. His 2,313 passing yards are less than half those of the league leader, Daunte Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings, while his 14 touchdowns are dwarfed by the 49 hurled by the Colts' Peyton Manning. Yet Vick eclipsed every other quarterbacks with 902 rushing yards.

Last month, McKay digested those figures and came up with another: 135 million. That represents the amount of dollars Vick will be paid over the next 10 years, including a $27m (£14.3m) signing bonus. It is the richest contract in the game's history.

"He's about as exciting a player ever to come into our game," McKay said, "yet despite the hype, he remains very level-headed. I think his appeal lies in the fact that today, with so much television around the world, we live in highlights. Michael makes a highlight film every time he plays."

It is yet more pressure heaped on young shoulders, but then Vick has always seemed capable of carrying such burdens. Even before he had played a down in his rookie year, Vick's replica shirt was a best-seller. Last year alone, Reebok reported sales of 290,000 Vick game jerseys: his nearest NFL rival managed less than 100,000.

His popularity is not simply with young urban blacks either. Falcon research has revealed that the Vick factor excites people regardless of colour, age or gender.

"That brought a smile to my face, because recognition is something I work hard for," he said. "I enjoy being a celebrity. It can be tough when you go to a restaurant and there's a hundred people asking for your autograph, but at the same time I enjoy the notoriety. I am a role model across the world to a lot of people, and that feels good."

Vick has adapted quickly to life in the spotlight. He is rarely seen partying, opting instead for quiet nights with his girlfriend and two young children. He does not court controversy, and in interviews, while relaxed, he reveals little of his inner soul.

"He's like a wisp of air," said his team-mate, the tight end Alge Crumpler.

"They try to grab him, but there's nothing there." Crumpler was referring to Vick's playing style, but the comment applies equally to his off-field persona. Vick sheds hangers-on as effortlessly as he evades tacklers.

There is a thirst for excellence under his placid exterior. That inner drive, combined with the shrewd tutelage of Mora and McKay, could lead to Vick fulfilling his anointed role as the inheritor of Michael Jordan's mantle.

"He's not there yet, because Jordan won trophies," Mora said. "But he has unbelievable talent and a tremendous work ethic and that is a special combination. If he keeps working the way he has been, he will set the world on fire. I'm just going to hitch my wagon to Michael and let him take us where he wants to go."

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