MINNEAPOLIS — When Michael Vick plays his game in the arenas of America, the arenas undergo a sudden transformation. For a day they are no longer football stadiums. With Vick on the field, you can legitimately call them concert halls.
It's not artistry that produces this alchemy. Michael Vick is a professional football player, a 22-year-old quarterback who in less than two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons has turned the National Football League inside out. At this point in his career he is less an artist than a force of nature, an intuitive athlete whose extraordinary and impulsive playmaking turns opposing crowds into claques of admirers. You can almost hear a few distant "bravos."
In two years he has become a kind of shared resource among the crowds of professional football. He's achieved that status with his daring and his arsenal of athletic gifts, a young man whose zest makes him play like a millionaire Huckleberry Finn who can't wait until the next play.
When another football star performs in front of a hostile crowd, he can usually expect just that - hostility. He can expect jeers and taunts and the normal quota of casual vulgarity. But what Michael Vick gets essentially is large eyes and wonderment. Sometimes this graduates into the gallery's ultimate salute to a visiting athlete, applause. Only people like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, and a few others had reached that level of appreciation.
For all this he offers some straightforward recognition. He told a reporter: "When people say they like to watch me, it makes me want to do it every time I touch the ball." That drive hasn't just pleased fans, it has put the Falcons in the playoff running.
What happened Sunday in Minneapolis, where Vick won the game 30-24 in overtime by running 46 yards to a touchdown, went past the venues of the concert stage and stadium and moved the game into the burlesque theater. His quick shifts of direction at high speed were so abrupt that two of his Viking pursuers collided and sagged into futility. It was no coincidence that Vick's climactic run thrust him into the record books with his 173 yards rushing, the most for any QB since the National and American Football Leagues joined 30 years ago.
Quarterbacks are historically paid to throw the ball. This Vick does with good to middling quality. But it's possible no quarterback has ever run with the combined speed, power, and ad lib instinct that Vick brought to Atlanta from his two years at Virginia Tech.
His rivals, who know something unique when they see it, tumble over themselves trying to characterize the play of Michael Vick. Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp, who is glib, weighs 300 pounds, and is ready to fight the world every Sunday, is suddenly terse describing Vick: "He is frightening. Absolutely frightening." Another player compared him with a cheetah. A general manager raised the bar for metaphors and called him "a Frankenstein."
Whoa. Is one young football player worth all of this rhetorical excess? Well, yes. Vick plays a position that has been reinvented radically in pro football since the time when only Fran Tarkenton of the Vikings defied orthodoxy and deserted the so-called protective pocket formed by his blockers. Tarkenton ran instead of passed whenever he seemed in danger of being decapitated by onrushing linemen, which was often in his early years.
Vick, though, is part of an oncoming wave of change. Most of the rising young quarterbacks today are players who have the physical skills to improvise when their pass protection evaporates. This means they have to be serious runners. Steve Young of the 49ers was one. But the athletic quarterbacks started to arrive high on the pro draft charts with emergence of African-American quarterbacks in large numbers in college football. Those discoveries were clearly overdue. But today pro football gives you Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia, Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota, and others, yet none with quite the startling impact of Michael Vick.
He is a six-foot, 215-pounder who could obviously make a million doing nothing more than running the football. He can throw it with force and acceptable accuracy. And sometimes he throws it with a style that challenges the rules of nature, running at top speed, twisting and throwing against the grain, throwing right while running left. He's a left hander, which further befuddle defenses. Now put it all together. In Minneapolis Sunday, he threw some lousy passes, some gorgeous ones, and one that just skimmed over a defender's reach and into the hands of his receiver for a 39-yard touchdown.
On other plays he ran both spontaneously and by design. They drew up plays for him that resembled the old Southern California "student body left" with masses of blockers in front of him.
He was personally responsible for 346 of Atlanta's 379 yards, and when it was over one of his coaches said: "Have you ever seen anything like it?"
In a word, no.