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A homecoming of uncertainty

Vick returns to Atlanta for first time since serving prison sentence for dogfighting.


ATLANTA — Roddy White looks forward to seeing Michael Vick. Just don’t expect the Falcons receiver to don another T-shirt showing his support for No. 7.

“I’ve got to be locked in,” White said Wednesday, breaking into a hearty laugh. “This is a big game for us.”

No one is quite sure what kind of reception Michael Vick will get when he returns to the Georgia Dome for the first time since serving 18 months in federal prison for dogfighting. After being out of the league for two seasons, the former Falcons quarterback is now a little-used backup for the Philadelphia Eagles (7-4), who face the Falcons (6-5) Sunday in a crucial matchup of NFC playoff contenders.

Far from the spare part he is now, Vick was one of the league’s most dynamic players during his six years with the Falcons, leading the team to the brink of the Super Bowl after the 2004 season. Some Atlanta fans continue to wear his No. 7 jersey to games, and one group is even planning a welcome home rally for him outside the stadium.

Of course, there will likely be plenty of boos from fans still appalled at the heinous crimes he committed against animals and how much he hurt the franchise that gave him the richest contract in NFL history.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Vick said Wednesday at the Eagles’ training complex. “I know I still enjoy the city. I’ll never forget the fans. I’ll always be true to them. Who knows? I look forward to going back and being in that stadium. That’s going to be like a dream come true, even though I’m on the opposite side.”

Back in 2007, on the very day Vick was sentenced to prison, the Falcons played a Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints. White paid tribute to his disgraced friend by wearing a “Free Mike Vick” T-shirt under his jersey, which he pulled up after scoring a touchdown so a national television audience could see the handwritten message — a stunt that drew a $10,000 fine from the NFL.

White has no such plans for Sunday, and there’s been so much turnover on the Falcons’ roster that only a handful of players who took the field during Vick’s tenure are still around. Among the 22 starters, a mere seven are holdovers from No. 7’s era.

“I haven’t been thinking about it. It doesn’t matter to me,” said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who’s in his first season with the team. “I know he’s coming back. I’m sure there are some people who are going to welcome him and some people that are not. That’s not my deal. I’m out there to play football.”

But Vick still has friends on the team, including White and another receiver, Brian Finneran. Both have stayed in contact with the ex-Atlanta quarterback.

“We’re always texting back and forth,” White said. “It’s more about life, what’s going on, things like that. It’s nothing football related.”

Have they exchange messages this week? Sure.

“I texted him and said, ‘I look forward to seeing you on Sunday,”’ White said. “He told me, ‘Good luck, get out there and do your thing.’ I think I’m going to text him today and ask for the game plan.”

The receiver was only kidding, of course, but his feelings for Vick are genuine. He’s not defending what his former teammate did away from the field, only remembering the good times they had together.

“He welcomed me here, took me under his wing, got me the ball. How could I be mad at the guy?” White asked. “We’re cool, man. Right before he had to go off and do his thing (prison sentence), we used to hang out. We developed a great relationship. We’re still going to be friends, regardless of football.”

Vick also speaks from time to time with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who supported his former star’s re-entry into the league and has continually said he would do anything to make sure he keeps his life on the right track, though he ruled out any chance of Vick ever returning to the Falcons.

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