For the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Vick makes a tough sell to a tough crowd

If Michael Vick thought prison life was tough, wait till he gets a load of the fans of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Philadelphia sports fans are the toughest in the country. They can sense when a player is not giving his best, and they mock him for it mercilessly. Eagles fans once pelted Santa Claus with snowballs during a game (although maybe St. Nick had it coming; he was roaring drunk at the time). Fans booed quarterback Donovan McNabb when he was drafted in 1999 over Ricky Williams.

Drafting McNabb turned out to be the right call. The jury is out on the Vick decision, though McNabb embraces it.

The Eagles are not a team prone to make hasty moves. Owner Jeffrey Lurie is a deliberate man -- some would say too deliberate. He told a press conference in Philadelphia today that he did quite a bit of "soul searching" before approving the Vick deal. That likely included discussions with the NFL and the Eagles corporate partners. Head coach Andy Reid may also have been inclined to give Vick a second chance, given that two of his sons have waged well-publicized battles against drug addiction.

But winning over football fans, disgusted by Vick's connection with dog-fighting, won't be easy. "People have very visceral reactions to what Mike Vick did, and therefore by his return to the NFL," says Phil de Picciotto, president of sports-marketing firm Octagon. "The Eagles are confident that this is a good decision." Fans will root for Vick if he plays well, he says.

Some fans are curious whether Vick, at one time the highest-paid player in the NFL, still can play. Ticket prices have soared for the first preseason Eagles game in which Vick could play, and for the regular-season Eagles game against the Atlanta Falcons, Vick's old team. (Vick's last NFL game before his incarceration was against the Eagles.)

In the minds of many fans, Vick's participation in a dog-fighting ring was simply evil. Since getting out of prison, Vick and his advisor, former NFL coach Tony Dungy, have repeatedly apologized for Vick's actions.

"I think he is a different person than the man who went in 21 months ago" to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, Dungy told the New York Democrat & Chronicle yesterday. Vick again expressed remorse for his actions; he sounded contrite, but no one can know whether it's all show.

Some, of course, will never forgive him. A PETA spokesman told the Associated Press that the organization is disappointed by Vick's signing: "You have to wonder what sort of message this sends to young fans who care about animals and don't want them to be harmed."

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