Vick huggers, haters barely make presence felt

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In the parlance of the locals, there are huggers and haters, the supporters and detractors of quarterback Michael Vick, respectively. And they were out in less than full force here on Thursday afternoon as the Atlanta Falcons began training camp with their star player in absentia and in trouble with the law.

Neither side, situated just outside the Falcons' property, will ever be accused of having rallied the troops.

Two opposing armies this was not. Emotions ran, well, low. Outside of the cars that blew by and blared their horns, there was no din. When one automobile cruised past and slowed so that a passenger could shout "Vick sucks," the best retort summoned up by a supporter of the Atlanta quarterback was, "Yeah, whatever."

Just two hours before the Falcons were scheduled for their first practice under rookie coach Bobby Petrino, there were maybe 15 anti-Vick protestors and five supporters. And those counts were generous.

No one blocked traffic. There were no problems for Falcons players or employees who were entering the grounds. The scene, indeed, defined the term token display.

"Hey, I could have 100 Michael Vick fans here in 10 minutes, with one phone call, man," claimed Adam King, 23, who lives just minutes from the Falcons complex. "That's all it would take, believe me."

When asked why he hadn't yet made the call that he claims would have swelled the ranks of Vick supporters, King shrugged.

Having planned to go swimming Thursday with a few friends, King drove past the practice facility, saw the handful of PETA representatives on hand and decided he had to counter their protest. So he and two friends hustled home, crafted three hand-lettered placards that proclaimed "Vick is the Man" and set up shop across the street from the anti-Vick forces.

Mike Brazell, a campaign coordinator for PETA who had taken part in the protest at NFL headquarters last week and then made the long drive here, brought along plenty of signs that urged Nike and the league to take more action. But many of the signs, most of them bearing pictures of pit bulls, sat on the ground.

"We think the appropriate action is for Vick to be suspended for a full year, or at least until after his trial," said Brazell, who arrived at the Falcons complex at 7 a.m. "Right now, he's getting ready to go into a courtroom. But the dogs that died on his property, they never got a day in court. Whoever killed those dogs was judge, jury and executioner, and since all of it occurred on his property, he has some responsibility."

The animal rights supporters who were on hand, Brazell said, were alerted to the protest through an activist database that PETA maintains. And the organization will dig into that database, he said, when it stages "full-scale actions" at Niketown outlets next Monday.

Perhaps the most intriguing person on site, neither hugger nor hater, was Alan McKee of nearby Cumming, Ga.

Although he said he detests what Vick is alleged to have done -- "I never liked the guy from Day One, and it's just been one problem after another, but this one was the straw for me," he said -- McKee's primary purpose on Thursday was to hawk hastily made T-shirts.

"Send Ookie to the Pookie" read the gray T-shirt that was challenged to cover McKee's generous girth.

Ookie, of course, is the nickname by which Vick is referred in the federal indictment against him, and only his closest friends are permitted to use the moniker. McKee didn't seem bothered by infringing on Vick's right to limit the Ookie users. Nor was he flummoxed when apprised that he had misspelled "pokey" on the shirt.

"Hey, look," McKee said, "I'm just trying to make a buck."

On a day when others, but not many of them, were trying to make a point, his idea seemed as good as any.

A small plane kept circling over the practice field Thursday, pulling a banner that read "New team name? Dog Killers?"

"I was wondering when it was going to run out of gas," Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler said scornfully.

Crumpler called the distractions "a bump in the road" -- only to be corrected by teammate Lawyer Milloy.

"It's going to be a big bump in the road," the veteran safety said. "Everybody recognizes that."

The Falcons hope the furor will die down a bit in the days and weeks to come, so they can get back to talking about football instead of their quarterback's legal problems.

"Let us play football, and we'll try our best to win games," linebacker Keith Brooking pleaded. "Those are some serious allegations. It's very disappointing for us. I'm not going to say we're not going to think about it. At the same time, our main objective is to win football games."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.