Years later, my memory gone hazy from the residual trauma, I'll ask my wife how I responded to the loss of another winnable game and another promising season. "You ran out into the woods," she'll say. "Probably with your face in your hands."
December 24, 2006. Soon, of course, the search warrant will be served, the indictment will be returned, the details will emerge—the hanging, the drowning, the death of at least six dogs who were deemed unfit to fight—and the plea will be entered, and our quarterback will go to prison, and lost in the worldwide uproar will be this simple fact: Long before the full truth came to light, we knew we had lost Michael Vick.
Knew it from his endless repetition of the same mistakes. The fumbles. The running into sacks. The failure to hit receivers in stride. The complete lack of improvement from his first year as a starter. The lame excuses and the shifting of blame. The Ron Mexico incident. The water-bottle incident. The Rolex incident. The 2005 collapse. The 2006 collapse. His two middle fingers raised to the bleachers. And today: the worst loss in the history of Red and me and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers enter the Georgia Dome on a four-game losing streak, including a 37--3 dismantling by the Steelers last week at home. Their starting quarterback is injured. Their substitute quarterback, Chris Weinke, has lost 17 consecutive starts over the past five years. Today he will throw for only 32 yards. And it will be enough to beat us.
The Panthers come out with 12 straight running plays. They score the game's only touchdown on a drive that lasts nearly 11 minutes. We know what they will do, and we do nothing to stop it. We let the NFL's 27th-ranked rushing offense hold the ball for nearly 42 minutes. Vick goes 9 for 20, for 109 yards, with two interceptions, for a rating of 22.7.
It's been a hard year for Red. He tells me a few things and keeps many more to himself, but I know the lost children weigh heavily on his mind. Now he watches the man who took our love and our money and never loved us back. Red watches him sleepwalk right out of Atlanta. And Red kicks a hole in the wall.
January 3, 2009. Our new quarterback is nothing like the old one. He goes to bed at 9:30 and runs only when chased by predators, and four months ago, on his first NFL pass, he hit Michael Jenkins in stride for a 62-yard touchdown. Now, in a year when SI predicted we'd go 2--14, Matt Ryan has led us to an 11--5 record and back to the playoffs, against the Cardinals in Arizona. He drops back for his first pass. It's intercepted.
Red and I watch in anguish from our booth at Taco Mac, a sports bar in midtown Atlanta, three blocks from my new apartment. I was gone for 16 years. Then, last fall, I moved back to our hometown to write features for Atlanta magazine.
Ryan shrugs off the interception and throws a touchdown pass for a 17--14 halftime lead. Then he botches a handoff to Michael Turner for a fumble, and he throws another pick, and he's sacked in the end zone for a safety, and the Cardinals go ahead 30--17. Arizona was only 9--7 this season, losing by 28, 21 and 40 points in the last five weeks, and so even with a rookie quarterback we're favored to win this game. Ryan throws another touchdown to cut the Cardinals' lead to six. Now we just need a stop on third-and-16 to get the ball for what could be the winning drive.
Kurt Warner goes back to pass. He fakes the handoff, fooling our linebackers, and hits the tight end down the middle for 23 yards. First down. Game over. Another season down the drain. We walk back to my apartment in silence.