His critics, Vick claims, "have me and my homeboys sitting around and laughing all the time." Yet Vick hasn't been able to brush off the criticism so easily. "I hear people saying, ' Mike Vick can't throw from the pocket,' and I'm like, What are y'all looking at?" he says. "What do all those passing yards mean at the end of the year if you don't win? I know who every one of those critics is; some of them have never played the game and don't know what they're talking about. Eventually I'll earn their respect because I'll continue to work hard. But in the meantime I advise them to keep doing what they're doing because it helps motivate me."
Vick, once blissfully devoid of public trepidation, has grown accustomed to feeling like a target. "There's always someone knocking on your door or getting in your face, trying to get you to start a business or to get something from you," he says. Though he declines to discuss it in detail, Vick is clearly troubled by the lawsuit filed against him in March by a Georgia woman who claims that he gave her herpes. "It's a serious issue," Vick says. "[Having to deal with] stuff like that is a part of being me. But I've got a strong legal team by my side that's ready to handle its business."
When Vick was a 10-year-old growing up in Newport News, Va., he had a brush with fame that would shape his behavior to this day. While attending a football game at Hampton University, Vick was walking outside the stadium when he noticed a rottweiler peeking out of a parked SUV. "I was like, Damn, whose dog is that?" he recalls. "I heard a door slam and looked back, and it was [ Buffalo Bills All-Pro defensive end] Bruce Smith. I thought, That ain't Bruce Smith. My heart was beating like crazy. But I yelled out, 'Bruce!' and he said, 'What's up?' and threw me the peace sign."
It wasn't quite a Mean Joe Greene moment, but Vick felt enough of a connection that he vowed to reach out to the younger generation if he were ever to make it big. At last week's camp he made a point of injecting himself into drills, playfully pump-faking before unleashing spirals and high-fiving receivers after catches. One day on the way to camp, he also made a surprise visit to an Atlanta radio station to meet with an eight-year-old boy who'd been wounded by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said 12-year-old camper Carlo Barrera of Austin. "I've been watching him since he started playing, and I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in history." One reason Vick resonates with kids is that he plays the game in a spontaneous, unbounded manner to which they can relate. Meanwhile, Vick appreciates the children's directness and lack of guile--they may be coming at him, like everyone else, but at least they don't have a concealed angle. In his words, "They want me, but they just want some attention and affection."
One night Vick flashed a boyish grin as he bounced between a pair of fields on which campers squared off in full-contact scrimmages. He and several of his friends, including Carpenter, oohed and aahed over big hits and flashy plays, growing most excited when the camp's smallest participant, eight-year-old Malik Clemons, cut back twice on a long touchdown run. A few minutes later Malik, while blocking for another ballcarrier, lit up a camper twice his size. "That little dude's serious, man!" Vick exclaimed. "My camp will teach you how to play football."
It was nearly nine o'clock when the session ended, and the setting sun had given a peachlike tint to the billowy clouds above. "I'm too tall to act small," Vick sang as some of the younger campers descended, playfully daring him to participate in the following evening's scrimmages. "It's on, Vick--tomorrow," a broad-shouldered camper growled. "When I'm finished with you, all you're gonna see is pitch-black." Vick cracked up. A crew-cut camper chimed in that he was going to leave Vick seeing nothing but "white light, baby," then reconsidered his position.
"Actually," he said, latching on to Vick's passing arm, "I want to be on your team."