The first quarterback to lead the Atlanta Falcons to three straight winning seasons, one might assume that Matt Ryan would be iconic in Atlanta. Yet he remains in former Falcon Michael Vick’s shadow, even as Vick is disliked elsewhere in the country for his past transgressions.
Vick endured minor scandals with the Falcons until his role in a dogfighting ring landed him in federal prison. He confessed to an active role in the hanging and drowning of several dogs. He returned to the NFL after 23 months in prison and secured a $100 million contract as a Philadelphia Eagle. Vick has returned to Atlanta twice— as a backup in 2009, and as a starter in a 2011 showdown— with much fanfare.
There's no shortage of explanations for Vick's appeal over Ryan’s despite his violent misconduct. Race and class identification are starting points. Certainly Vick's “revolutionary” athleticism is a far bigger draw for a city reputed to “love its freaks.” Ryan wins with comparatively less prowess.
However, this NFL piece pushes a narrative explaining Vick’s appeal specifically in the area of the southeast where Baptist congregation is more important to Sunday than the “NFL Experience”: redemption.
Ryan is not necessarily disliked (the pastor confesses to rooting for the Falcons). However, his narrative is one of privilege (middle-class upbringing, private schooling, a larger rookie contract than Vick's). He is merely another talented person taking advantage of opportunity.
Vick offers these fans an embodiment of what their congregation preaches. In the full-length piece, a parishioner admits to seeing himself in Vick, having rebuilt his life after drug addiction. The pastor does not see “Matt Ryans” in need of rescuing spiritually, but he sees his share of “Michael Vicks.” Where others would see prior scandal as detrimental to image, these fans see it as a chance to speak their faith to power. One could argue that Vick’s enduring popularity in the south is as much, maybe moreso, due to narrative identification than personal qualities.