Frodo Baggins has his ring, and Harry Potter has his wand. Michael Vick, the man who's hell-bent on turning the football world on its ear, works his magic with a small tube of emollient. If you want to know what makes Vick tick, flash back to the first time the electrifying quarterback stepped into the huddle during a regular-season game, when the Atlanta Falcons were pinned deep in their own territory in the first quarter of their 2001 opener, at San Francisco's 3Com Park. As Vick jogged onto the field to join his teammates, all eyes were on the No. 1 draft pick with the blazing speed and the amazing left arm. We'll let former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson tell the rest: "We're backed up in our own end zone, and the 49ers' fans are screaming at us, calling Vick's mama every name in the book. We're all looking at Mike and sizing him up—his first game, all the hype, how will he react? And the kid pulls out a Chap Stick, waxes his lips and pops it back into his helmet. I looked at him and said, Are you kidding me?' He just started laughing, and then everyone else did too. And I'm thinking, This is the coolest guy on the planet."
Fourteen months and countless tubes of lip balm later, Vick is also the hottest football player on earth. In just 12 career starts—including Sunday's 19-of-24, two-touchdown-pass day in the Falcons' 41-0 shellacking of the Carolina Panthers—the would-be college senior has become the NFL's most electrifying player and energized a foundering franchise. Atlanta (7-3-1) can attribute its seven-game unbeaten streak to Vick's rapid ascension, and he has no intention of leveling off at cruising altitude anytime soon.
"It's been cool so far, but realize that I'm striving for greatness," Vick says. "God blessed me with some unbelievable talent, and I'm using it. I was daydreaming during a team meeting earlier today, and it hit me that I could easily be just like the average person, working in a regular day job and trying to get by. Yet here I am, with the Falcons—in this great city, Hotlanta—and everything's fallen into place. And you know what? I deserve it. I worked very hard to get here, and I didn't shortchange myself along the way."
Remarkably, Vick can say things like that without coming across as cocky. He is sitting on a couch in his Alpharetta, Ga., town house just days before he'll move to a large house in a gated community near the Falcons' training facility—"where all the big-timers live," he says, smiling. While his pit bull, Champagne, chews on what was formerly a miniature basketball, a bunch of Vick's southeastern Virginia homies sit amid the mess in the soon-to-be-vacated crib, watching college football on the big screen and sucking down Coronas. It's evident that Vick, at 22, is still an unspoiled, upbeat kid who would be chilling in a Virginia Tech dorm room were it not for his prodigious talent.
Ask Vick if he enjoys watching highlights of his more breathtaking plays, and he lets out a giggle. "Oh, yeah, my boys and I do it sometimes," he says, rubbing Chap Stick on his lips. "I'll say, 'Hey, run that back; that was kind of hot.' Sometimes, I swear I think my body moves on its own, and I amaze myself."
Vick is so fast (4.3 seconds in the 40) and elusive, says Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, that "if you put him in a six-by-six cell with 11 guys, it'd take them an hour to touch him. Other than Deion [Sanders], I've never seen anybody with as much ability, and Deion didn't handle the ball every play." Vick is a threat to take off anytime, which buys him precious seconds before he has to throw the ball. Pass rushers hesitate before charging him lest they be juked, and his ability to keep plays alive bedevils opposing defensive backs, who are asked to cover receivers for an inordinately long time.
But even if Vick were a lead-footed statue of a quarterback, he'd still be worth the price of admission. His arm is among the league's strongest; he throws pretty spirals with the slightest flick of the wrist. "The dude is a freak, because he barely moves in practice, and we still see some of the wildest things you could imagine," Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan says. "I've seen the boy throw 60 yards, to the opposite side of the field, off his back foot."
"There is no barometer for his excellence, because we've never seen anything like this," says Anderson. "He has the speed and elusiveness of Marshall Faulk, the arm of Jeff George and the athletic ability of Donovan McNabb."
In other words, Vick is sick. Take his 74-yard touchdown pass to wideout Trevor Gaylor on Nov. 17, against the New Orleans Saints: Vick scrambled to his left and casually flipped the ball 50 yards to his target. Or take Vick's own favorite play, a slicing, dicing 44-yard touchdown run on Oct. 20 against the Panthers. Or a play on Sunday in which he bought time by scrambling out of the pocket and delivered a 20-yard bullet to running back Warrick Dunn, who carried the ball the last 25 yards for a touchdown.
On Nov. 10, in the Falcons' 34-34 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Vick's prowess was mind-blowing. He converted three passes for first downs on third-and-22 or longer (including two on one drive) and led Atlanta back from a 17-point deficit in the last 12:34 of regulation. The final points came on a sizzling 11-yard scramble during which Vick got outside and stiff-armed Steelers safety Lee Flowers, though it appeared to the naked eye as if the quarterback had simply vaporized for a second or two. As Vick says, " Ray Buchanan always tells me he thinks I've got some invisible-juice in my helmet."