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PHILADELPHIA – Michael Vick finishes practice and is eager to get home to celebrate his daughter London's sixth birthday. First, he takes time to put smiles on many other children's faces.
It's two days before the Philadelphia Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys in a first-half showdown for first place in the NFC East. Vick isn't going to play because of an injured hamstring. That's disappointing news for one of his biggest fans, 7-year-old Justin Perales.
But this courageous child who overcame brain surgery and a ruptured aneurysm was in for a special surprise on a beautiful Friday afternoon in October.
Perales and his father, Eddie, were invited to the Eagles' practice facility. Justin, recovering well after being in an induced coma for five weeks, was waiting in a wheelchair in the lobby when his favorite player arrived.
The boy's eyes lit up when Vick walked in and gave him a fist-pump. That was just the beginning.
Vick served as Justin's personal tour guide around the building. The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback wheeled the boy into the weight room, introduced him to teammates, took him on the practice field and finished with a trip to the locker room. After posing for pictures at his locker, Vick handed Justin a pair of tickets for the game against the Cowboys and also gave him an autographed football.
"I love kids," Vick said. "I'll always think if one of my own was going through what some kids are going through in this world, things they can't control, how I'd want someone to be there for them and try to put a smile on their face. He's smiling right now and I was able to do that. It makes it all worth it."
After spending about an hour with Justin, Vick wasn't done. Next came a visit to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Vick posed for pictures, signed autographs and spoke to children with various ailments.
"It's hard to see children going through that," Vick said. "I just wanted to stop by and hang out with them."
Four years after his release from prison, Vick is one of the NFL's most active players involved in charities. He created the Team Vick Foundation to support the power of a second chance by partnering with charities that provide hope to at-risk youth; the incarcerated, addicted or impoverished; and animal welfare.
In July, Vick met with U.S. Congressman John Lewis in Washington to promote Team Freedom Outreach, a charity that mentors children in youth detention centers.
"I want to inspire young kids to dream and give them a sense of hope for their situation," Vick said.
Vick received the key to the city from the mayor of Atlantic City last year for his support following Hurricane Sandy. He donated $200,000 to create a football field for at-risk youth in a North Philadelphia neighborhood. He visits schools, prisons and reaches out to help wherever he can.
There's also his work with the Humane Society of the United States. After serving 18 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation, Vick became an advocate for animal rights.
He introduced a bill with the Humane Society — The Animal Spectator Prohibition Act — that would make it a felony to bring a child to an animal fight. He also produced public service announcements for the Humane Society.
None of his work is court-ordered, a common misconception. Vick does it because he wants to.
"I never was obligated to do anything with the Humane Society," Vick said. "It was something that was in my heart coming out of prison. It was the right thing to do. I wanted to rehabilitate myself and my way of thinking and my situation. I wanted to make amends in that department."
Though he's no longer the starting quarterback — coach Chip Kelly officially gave Nick Foles the title on Tuesday — Vick is the team leader. He's been the guy teammates look to for advice, encouragement and inspiration since his arrival as the No. 3 quarterback in 2009.
Vick takes that role seriously, and he's handled the situation with Foles professionally. Foles has played so well that even Vick said it wouldn't be fair to take him out of the lineup. Foles is 4-1 in his five starts, and the Eagles (6-5) are tied for first place with Dallas going into Sunday's game against Arizona (7-4).
"Mike is a great teammate, great leader," Kelly said.
Foles admired Vick long before they became teammates. Their relationship has grown strong despite competing for the same job.
"The best thing about Mike is he's a great team player," Foles said. "He's been nothing but helpful toward me throughout everything, whether it's me on the sidelines and him maybe telling me what he sees out there. If it's a time when composure's an issue, we'll just sit there and talk. And that's what's special about Mike, he's a good person. Just to see him being a team player throughout this, it's been great for me to look up to an older guy and see how he's handled this whole situation."
Vick also hopes to influence his teammates off the field.
"It's all about being a role model," Vick said. "I try to set the example for athletes to come, the younger players who are going to step foot in the league, and try to show them how to make an amazing impact not only for the organization they play for and the team, but the community, too."
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