Falcons fans face sobering reality

ATLANTA - It didn't matter to Jennifer Henderson that Michael Vick became a convicted felon Monday on federal charges related to a dogfighting ring. It didn't matter that he accepted blame, "was not honest" and that he admitted he "had to grow up."

She proudly wore Vick's No. 7 jersey to Monday night's preseason game between the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati, vowing to support the beleaguered quarterback as he prepares for prison.

"I want him free because I love him and he's my quarterback," she said. "Beyond this, he's a good person. People make mistakes."

She wrapped a T-shirt around her waist that read: Free Mike Vick.

It was clear Falcons fans were ready to put the Vick saga behind them before Monday's nationally-televised game. The team played for the first time with new head coach Bobby Petrino inside the Georgia Dome and more fans stayed at home than used their tickets. At kickoff, there were about 25,000 fans at the game, which means there were about 45,000 no-shows. Preseason games generally don't attract a lot of attention and Vick's guilty plea apparently compounded the town's disinterest.

For years Vick captured the town's imagination and interest as one of the most exciting players in National Football League history. For the past few weeks, however, he's been a sickening distraction from football, like a hangover that won't go away.

Now that he's admitted his guilt - and asked for forgiveness - the Falcons hope they can win back the town's attention for all the right reasons. But if Monday's game is any indication, it will be a slow, if not painful, process.

"They have to move on," said Jeff Van Note, a Falcons legend whose retired number hangs from the rafters inside the Dome. "They will put this behind them."

There weren't many Vick supporters at the game, but the few were loud. And many were misinformed. A group wore T-shirts that said: "Innocent Until Proven Guilty." On the back, they criticized all the sponsors that dumped Vick.

Vick no longer is innocent. A federal judge accepted his plea on Monday, making him a felon. He will be sentenced as such on Dec. 10.

Another fan said there was little difference between the way Vick financed a gambling ring and buying a lottery ticket. The exception, of course, is that one is a felony, the other is not.

And then there's Eugene DeBartolo of Foley, Ala., who insisted Vick is innocent.

"I don't think he did it," DeBartolo said. "I think he said he did it so it would be better for him, so he wouldn't go to prison for a long time. He bought the dogs, but the other people did the fighting. I think he lied (to the judge about his guilt)."

Wayne Henderson of Warrenton wasn't as adamant about his loyalty to Vick as his wife, Jennifer. But he said he always will be a fan.

"I don't take nothing away from him as an athlete," Wayne Henderson said. "His personal decisions, he made them decisions and he's going to have to pay for them. As an athlete, what he did for the team, he took Atlanta to a whole different level. Nobody was really interested in the team in the years before he was here. Everything went up, tickets sold out. Everybody was interested. Everybody became interested in the Falcons because of one man.

"You can't turn your back on somebody for one mistake. This is the first time he's ever had to face consequences for his mistakes. That's the thing. There will be major consequences, don't get me wrong. I don't support what he did. I don't support it at all. I do support him as an Atlanta Falcon."

Joey Harrington is the new quarterback in Atlanta. Wayne Henderson said he will cheer just as loud for him as he did for Vick.

"We're Falcons fans through-and-through," he said. "We'll be here to support our Falcons, Vick or no Vick. We're here to see a good season beyond all the drama. That's all we hope for: a good season."

And a sense of normalcy.