Is Michael Vick For Real?

After astonishing everyone with the way he played last season, he seems to be all the way back—with a lock on the Eagles quarterback job, a new autobiography and a new multimillion-dollar Nike deal. So why does it still feel like we'll never really know him?

Just before my Virginia trip, though, Frink’s PNKelephant jewelry store opens on South Street, and Vick attends a media event. His presence is immediately startling: The impassivity I’ve seen in him in highly charged moments—on TV, on YouTube—has a calming effect when you’re up close and personal. Vick is slow and easy, sauntering about in shiny white untied Nikes. I watch him chat with a Bronx teenager named Xavier Hamilton, who has come all the way to Philly to meet Michael Vick. Vick puts an arm around the boy’s waist—they talk football, school, goals. Vick says almost in a whisper to Xavier that he’ll give him his phone number, but not here, that it’s too public. Later, upstairs, Vick slips the boy his cell number.

In Hampton, at his camp for 300 kids, I watch Vick meander, casually throwing a ball around, and keep smiling through an endless photograph session with all of them. He likes kids, and gives them time.

Finally, when we sit in a small cafeteria to talk, I ask Vick if he often gives out his phone number to starry-eyed youngsters.

“I rarely do that,” he says.

Why with Xavier, then?

“A feeling at the time,” he says quietly. He leans forward, elbows on knees, playing with a small gold-edged medallion; he’s wearing long basketball shorts and an Air Jordan t-shirt. One tattoo stands out: A Child Of God, on his neck. “It was something that I saw in him.”

Do you really expect to talk to Xavier?

“Absolutely,” Vick says. “Hopefully, we can have a long-term relationship. I can follow his college days, maybe he gets a shot at the NFL—if not, just follow him through life, and maintain a friendship, maybe teach him how to play golf or something.”

His openness, one-on-one, is surprising. So is what we immediately launch into: love. Vick says he can now look his father in the eye and tell him he loves him, which is no small thing, because Michael Boddie had always been in and out of Vick’s life. And just when the dogfighting charges were heating up and Vick was still denying them, Boddie told a reporter: “I wish people would stop sugarcoating it. This is Mike’s thing. And he knows it.” They didn’t speak for some time.

Vick tells me, laughing, that he himself is the best father in the world—he has two young girls with Frink, and a nine-year-old boy with another woman whom he’s taken to court to get joint custody. When I ask about Tony Dungy, Vick says that Peyton Manning, whom Dungy coached in Indianapolis, told him how devastated he once was when Dungy said that he was disappointed in him.

The point is obvious: Vick would be devastated if Dungy were disappointed in him, too.

And of Andy Reid: “I miss him.” Vick hasn’t been allowed to speak with his Eagles coach during the lockout. As he thinks of Andy, he holds both hands over his chest, palms pressed flat, his wrists crossed, smiling over conversations they’ve had on honesty: “Coach, you know I wouldn’t lie.”