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Despite tumultuous past, Blank hopes Vick has learned from his mistakes

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Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank didn't watch Michael Vick's news conference Friday, when Vick was introduced as the newest member of the Philadelphia Eagles. He missed Vick's apologies and admission of wrongdoing for fighting dogs, a crime that cost him 20 months in federal custody and two years of his NFL life. Blank, secluded in his TV-less Montana ranch, doesn't have any plans to see Vick's interview with James Brown on "60 Minutes" on Sunday either.

"I saw Michael right after he was released from prison," Blank said Friday. "I spent the better part of a day with him. I went to Virginia and I spoke to the commissioner [Roger Goodell] right after I saw Michael. I thought he was a different person. I've already done my version (of an interview) and my chat with him was a lot more than 60 minutes. I really think spending 20 months [in custody] has made him a changed person."

This isn't you or me or many of the people at Friday's news conference or Saturday's upcoming practice or his probation officer making a sweeping judgment of Vick's epiphany. This is an NFL owner who loved Vick like a son. His affection and feelings helped sway him into signing Vick to a 10-year, $130 million contract after the electrifying quarterback took his Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004 -- they lost, coincidentally to the Philadelphia Eagles.

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Blank invited Vick to his home several times to simply chat, have dinner or play video games with his kids. Their relationship was so cozy, that when Vick's dogfighting investigation hit a crescendo in 2007 and Blank's heart was broken after being lied to multiple times by Vick, Blank's wounds were deemed by many as self-inflicted. He got too close to notice he was being hoodwinked.

Even though Blank's franchise suffered enormous financial losses, fan departures and a total dismantling because of Vick's transgressions, Blank couldn't stop feeling for the former face of the organization. Vick would never play for him again, but Blank did communicate with Vick when he was in prison. As soon as he could, Blank visited his former quarterback after Vick was put under house arrest.

Blank doesn't think Vick was playing him again when they recently met.

"He was very open about why it happened and how badly he felt about it, and how badly he hurt me and a lot of other people," Blank said. "It wasn't just dogfighting. There were a lot of things in his life he would have changed. He said, in reflection, that it was a lifestyle he thought was unnecessary. He seemed to me to be quite sincere and thoughtful. He was anxious to talk about whatever. He wasn't like, 'Oh God,' like he could have been. He was open."

Blank wasn't the only person Vick confided to the same way. Either while in prison or out, Vick has spoken to several former teammates and associates and his story has been consistent. That consistency is why Vick has formed a small legion of believers that feel he's just not trying to hustle his way back into the good graces of the NFL so he can pay off the debts caused by the fortune he's lost.

There still is some skepticism. There has to be.

Vick is an unknowingly charming person who, if you've had the opportunity to spend time with him, is easy to like. Yet, behind the façade of the soft voice and mellow swagger, there was a guy living a double life. He fooled a lot of people -- and paid the price.

That's why Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, in one of the more brutally raw news conferences in recent history, explained that if Vick, in any way, hasn't been or won't be forthright and upstanding, signing him to one of the more well-run franchises in the NFL, "is a terrible decision."

One of the first things Blank said he noticed when he met with Vick was the positive family structure around him and the absence of the old crew that Vick used to roll with.

"He has cut people out," Blank said. "Beyond the personal journey he's on, will he have the capacity to keep those people out of his life? It's easy to do it when you're in prison. He made the point to me that a lot of his 'friends' forgot about him and his fiancée when he was in prison.

"My hope is for him to be able to continue to go through this transition that he's made a lot of progress on and that he makes sure he associates with the right people going forward."

Vick's loyalty to his friends and some of his family members may have helped drag him down the path that led him to prison. That was impossible for him to see, though, because those same friends were with him when he was dazzling all of us in a No. 7 red, white and black jersey while earning millions of dollars and fans in the process.

Will they come back around now that he's got a contract and a team? If they do, will he be able to tell who really is one of his boys? That's not always easy, even after everything he's been through.

Having former Colts coach Tony Dungy, Eagles coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb to consult with should help, but they have their own lives to lead. Vick has to be mature and smart. As Lurie pointed out, "There is no room for error on Michael's part. There's no third chances."

Blank said Lurie never consulted with him about Vick and Vick never consulted with him about the Eagles. He doesn't feel left out, though.

As much as he was hurt by how things ended with Vick and the Falcons, Blank and the franchise are in a good place. Vick's replacement, Matt Ryan, was the 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year. The coaching staff and management are more promising than they've been under Blank. The addition of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez further enhances a roster that could give the Falcons their first consecutive winning seasons in the franchise's 43-year history.

The fans lost to the Vick fallout and the economy are starting to return, Blank said. The team is actually ahead of its sponsorship projections. Things aren't where they were when Vick made the franchise a must-see, but they're looking forward. In fact, Blank can project at least one sellout this season: Dec. 6, when Vick and the Eagles come to the Georgia Dome.

"That game will be interesting," Blank said. "Who knows if he'll be playing or what the circumstances might be, but it definitely will be interesting."

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