The concoction that Vick does keep wedged in his helmet is the source of much amusement among teammates. Why the obsession with moist smackers? Blame Litisha Hymon, one of Vick's eighth-grade classmates at Huntington Middle School in Newport News, Va. "We were sitting there at a lab table one day, and she told me my lips looked ashen," Vick recalls. "I went to the bathroom and saw all this white stuff around my lips. I used to lick them all the time, so from that point on I got hooked on Chap Stick. I probably spend about $1,000 a year on it, because I'm always losing the stuff." Considering that the man has not yet been tagged with a nickname, allow us to suggest a couple of possibilities: Da Balm. Or Chap Vick.
Now consider this: Not long after middle-schooler Vick became addicted to Chap Stick, in 1993, his favorite NFL player, 49ers quarterback Steve Young, lost his second consecutive NFC Championship Game to the Dallas Cowboys. Like Vick now, Young was an immensely talented, scrambling lefty. The next season, under the tutelage of 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, Young became a masterly shredder of defenses, leading the Niners to a Super Bowl championship and making his case as a future Hall of Famer. Young foresees a similar path for Vick, whom he has taken under his wing—Young has shown him what he looks for on film, for instance—since visiting the Falcons' training camp this summer.
"What impresses me most is his attitude," Young says. "For all his talent, I think he's recognized that being on SportsCenter isn't nearly enough, and he expressed a sincere desire to learn to be a quarterback. I don't think anyone could have imagined him being any further along than he is, and there is so much that will improve—his understanding of schemes, his footwork, knowing when to give up on a play, and the caliber of players around him. I think he's on a quest."
The Quest began in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, when Virginia Tech faced heavily favored Florida State for the national title with Vick, a redshirt freshman, at quarterback. "We went down 28-7," he recalls, "and I gathered everyone around and said, 'Yo, it ain't going down like this. Somebody's gotta step up. I guess it's going to be me.' "
What happened next remains etched in the minds of everyone who saw the game. Vick threw for 225 yards, ran for 97 more and rallied the Hokies to a 29-28 lead before they succumbed 46-29. From that point on Vick's future in the NFL was assured. He stuck around Blacksburg for another season, finished his college career with a 20-1 record as a starter and waited to see which team would take him with the first pick.
A day before the 2001 draft the Falcons traded first-, second-and third-round picks, as well as wideout Tim Dwight, to the San Diego Chargers for the first selection. A few months ago the Chargers were basking in the deal's glow, having secured a franchise running back ( LaDanian Tomlinson) and a promising quarterback ( Drew Brees) in the same draft. Though the 7-4 Chargers can't be accused of having Sam Bowied their draft, Vick's recent performances suggest that San Diego may have passed on football's MJ, a once-in-a-generation superstar.
Both before and after the trade there were rumblings about Vick's supposed inadequacies. After all, every Superman has his Kryptonite, and the concern about the 6-foot, 215-pound Vick is that his reckless running style will lead to a debilitating injury. "A few weeks ago we brought out a coach from the Atlanta Braves [former big league infielder Terry Pendleton] to teach Mike how to slide," says Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who bought the team last February. "I want him to lead our franchise for years and years, and he has to learn how to protect himself." Vick did suffer a sprained right shoulder after being sacked by Simeon Rice in an Oct. 6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—he left in the third quarter and sat out the next week's game, a victory over the New York Giants—but the quarterback is undaunted by the possibility of further harm. "People think those hits hurt me, but they don't," he scoffs. "Watch my college film: I got smacked 15 times a game, and I was fine. I know NFL players are bigger and stronger, but I'm built like a running back."
Concerns persist about Vick's vulnerability to injury, but his play this year has squelched other doubts: about his accuracy (his completion percentage for the season is 59.5, up from 44.2 in his rookie year) and his ability to master the intricacies of an NFL offense. Tentative and confused as a rookie, Vick has become proficient at running the Falcons' system thanks to increased film study—he has a Betamax machine hooked up to the big-screen TV in his bedroom, and he watches opponents' game tapes for 90 minutes each weeknight—and to a long overdue decision by Atlanta coach Dan Reeves to change his antiquated, long-winded play names. Now the calls require about half of the words and are easier to understand. Says veteran tackle Bob Whitfield, "Last year our plays were some Edgar Allan Poe-type s—-, but they turned it into Dr. Seuss."
"I don't want to talk bad about Dan's offense, but it was stupid, ridiculous," Vick says. "There was just so much verbiage, and instead of studying routes or coverages, I came to practice just worried about getting the names of the plays out. As the backup [to Chris Chandler] I'd get eight reps, and I'd hold up practice because I screwed up six of them."
Reeves informed Vick of the terminology change in a call last February, the same one in which he handed Vick the starting job by telling him of Chandler's imminent release. With a new owner in place, and after three straight losing years since the Falcons' 1998 Super Bowl season, turning the team over to Vick seemed a chancy proposition. Although no one questioned his work ethic in practice or the weight room, Vick admits that he enjoyed Atlanta's thriving social scene and the spoils of bachelorhood. (His son, Michael Jr., was born in July, but Vick remains single.)