PHILADELPHIA – Michael Vick's ascendancy to starting quarterback has won over some Philadelphia Eagles fans who originally balked at his signing.
But many animal-loving football fans, who were among the most incensed upon his arrival in 2009, remain adamant in their opposition.
Debbie Sanville and her husband are Eagles season-ticket holders who have not attended a game since Vick signed. They do not plan to change that strategy as long he remains on the roster. Sanville believes Vick only regrets getting caught and has no remorse for his dogfighting past.
"That's our silent statement to the stadium. You have to take a stand somewhere in life and this is ours," Sanville said. "It pains me to spend the money, but my husband is a lifelong Eagles fan. He will outlast Vick."
On Sunday, after victories in consecutive road starts, Vick again will lead the Eagles onto the field, this time at home. It likely will be an emotional day on several fronts for Eagles fans. Not only is Vick making the start, after leading 35-32 and 28-3 victories over the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, but the game also marks the return of quarterback Donovan McNabb.
After 11 seasons with the Eagles, McNabb is the starter for the Washington Redskins.
Sanville's seats, which cost around $2,000 annually on top of a one-time $20,000 license, were empty all of last season. The couple from West Chester, Pa., donated tickets for several of this season's games to a terminally ill friend of a friend and his teenage son. But their seats will otherwise remain unused.
"(Coach) Andy Reid has made a deal with the devil," said Sanville, a teacher who runs a Downingtown, Pa., animal rescue and has two adopted dogs removed from the homes of animal hoarders. "There's a sadistic current running through (Vick) and it's horrifying that he's being glorified."
Vick, once the NFL's highest-paid player, was convicted in August 2007 of conspiracy and running a dogfighting ring. The former Atlanta Falcon served 18 months in federal prison. He was signed by the Eagles in August 2009, less than a month after his release, prompting an outcry from animal rights groups and animal-loving football fans.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged that he was skeptical when Vick expressed interest in helping the group. Since then, he said Vick has stuck with his commitment to making twice-a-week rounds to city schools with an anti-dogfighting message.
"What Michael Vick did was cold and heartless and cruel," Pacelle said. "It's important for him to get in front of the young boys who look up to him because he's a sports star, and tell them how dog fighting is reprehensible."
Adrian Miller, owner of a Philadelphia-based information technology company, said Vick's critics are a highly vocal but relatively small segment of Eagles fans.
"I'm proud of Michael Vick and my team taking a chance at redemption," he said. "He's trying to turn his life around ... he went to jail, he's been at the bottom of the bottom and now he's come back."
Miller said he believes Vick's race also factors into the vitriol.
"The undertones are there, but no one wants to discuss it," he said. "I can see that it plays a role."
Monica Caraffa, who lives a short walk from Lincoln Financial Field, gave up her season tickets because of Vick. She spends Eagles game days protesting outside the stadium. She said cruelty, not race, fuels her anger.
"If it had been Peyton Manning or Tom Brady who did the things he did," Caraffa said, "I'd feel exactly the same way."
Not far from her brick rowhouse, where an anti-Vick sign is displayed out front, the recent sight of a homeless woman with a pit bull brought her to tears.
"Here's a woman who, no doubt, will make sure her dog eats before she does," Caraffa said, "just blocks from where that sociopath is collecting a million-dollar paycheck."
Others appear to share her disdain.
The Philadelphia Daily News put Vick on its cover with the headline "Hide Your Dogs" when he signed. Websites began selling Vick dog chew toys. Pre-game protests were held outside the stadium. Facebook groups called for an Eagles boycott. And petitions were circulated to "Sack Vick."
After he became the starter, the Daily News again ran him on the cover — this time not with a warning, but a headline declaring him "Top Dog."
In 2009 and 2010, Vick was No. 1 on Forbes magazine's annual poll of most disliked athletes. In a survey in September, the organization that compiles "Q Score" familiarity ratings ranked Vick as least liked on a list of 198 athletes.
While NFLShop.com said Vick's No. 7 jersey was fourth-most popular after his signing last year, the site's most recent figures — compiled before he became the starter — do not place him among the top 25.
However, a spokesman for Modell's Sporting Goods, which has numerous locations in and around Philadelphia, said "sales have spiked significantly" for Vick jerseys and other merchandise in the weeks since he became starter. He's currently being outsold by the NL East-champion Phillies.
Dick's Sporting Goods, which announced after Vick signed last season that it would not sell his jerseys, has begun offering them for sale online and in stores. A spokeswoman declined comment.
Eagles fan Carmen Ferrigno, head of a Philadelphia communications consultancy firm, said what Vick did was horrible, but he still should be allowed to play.
"The judicial system tried and punished him, so he did his time," he said. "After that, I may not like him but I would fight for his right to move on with his life, just as I would if someone committed any other crime, even though I may hate them for doing the crime."