ATLANTA (AP) _ Michael Vick made a triumphant return to the Georgia Dome on Sunday, riding onto the field in a convertible to a raucous ovation that made it clear Atlanta Falcons have forgiven their former franchise quarterback.
Despite an online campaign calling for the Falcons to revoke their invitation over a dogfighting case that sent Vick to prison for nearly two years, he received by far the loudest ovation from the sellout crowd of 70,835 during a ceremony honoring the final regular-season game at the team’s home of 25 years.
“There are a lot of people who forgave me,” Vick said before the game. “It gives me another opportunity to show a different side of myself. I’m just thankful I have a lot of supporters.”
Vick, wearing a black No. 7 jersey and a silver Falcons cap, blew kisses and threw up his arms in appreciation.
“It was all good,” said former Falcons receiver Roddy White, who rode onto the field with Vick after about a dozen former players came out in pickup trucks, the crowd erupting when highlights from the former quarterback’s career began playing on the video board. “I’m glad they did something to recognize the work we put in. This is home. Mike started here. We’re all a family together.”
Vick was one of the most dynamic players in team history, but his legacy was forever marred by his criminal activities off the field, which came to light in 2007. He never played again for the Falcons.
A decade after his final game with the team, the animosity that Vick’s name once stirred among Atlanta fans appeared to have turned to forgiveness. Not one boo or jeer was heard from the crowd.
“When I first got the call that they wanted to honor the dome legends, I was just thankful I got the call,” Vick said before the game. “The dome holds a special place in my heart. This is where I started my career.”
Now 36, Vick played five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles after getting out of prison. He also spent time largely in backup roles with the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers, but hasn’t played for anyone this season and it appears his career is over.
“I’ve got some very fond memories,” Vick said.
He was asked back to Georgia Dome even though more than 29,000 people signed a petition on change.org calling for the Falcons to revoke their offer.
“By inviting Michael Vick to participate in a ceremony on Sunday, the Falcons are honoring a convicted dogfighter who profited from cruelty to animals for years,” the petition said.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank didn’t see it that way.
“Mike obviously has a great history with us, a great history with the franchise, an important player in our history,” Blank said. “So we wanted him to attend today and we’re glad he did. Michael represented an important part of my ownership period, an important part of our franchise. I think our fans, based on the response I saw and felt, I think our fans were excited to have him as well.”
Vick was the top overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft, earned three Pro Bowl selections in six years with the team and guided Atlanta to the NFC championship game during the 2004 season. He was the first quarterback in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
It all fell apart when Vick pleaded guilty to charges related to financing and participating in Bad Newz Kennels, a dogfighting operation in his native Virginia.
Vick expressed remorse for his actions, paid a huge financial price and became an advocate for animal rights. He was named NFL comeback player of the year in 2010 with the Eagles, receiving his final Pro Bowl nod, but will go down as a player who never quite lived up to his enormous potential.
Still, there is no doubt he was one of the greatest Falcons players in the history of the Georgia Dome.
The team is moving next season to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.4 billion facility with a retractable roof that is under construction next door to the dome. But the Falcons will have at least one more game at their current home, having clinched a first-round bye and a divisional round home game with a 38-32 victory over the Saints.
Matt Ryan, who essentially replaced Vick in Atlanta after being selection in the first round of the 2008 draft, is now a leading contender for MVP.
The two hugged in a tunnel after the halftime ceremony.
“He’s been really supportive of me here,” Ryan said. “Having been such an icon for this city and such a great player, his support has meant a lot to me throughout my career.”
AP freelance writer William Peace contributed to this report.