TWO MEN were eating hoagies in the plaza at the north end of Lincoln Financial Field. Grant Thomas was wearing a bootleg black Michael Vick jersey he bought outside the stadium for $70. Kaven Wilson was wearing a white T-shirt purchased outside for $25 that read, "Michael Vick . . . That's My Dawg." The only thing that angered Wilson was that he later saw the same shirt being sold for $10.

"Why did I buy it? Because I thought it was funny," Wilson said, taking another bite, shrugging.

It is there that we begin, with a shrug. Because, for fans of controversy - real controversy, not just conversation - Michael Vick and his re-entry into football society continues to disappoint. If this keeps up for much longer, we might actually stop talking about Vick and start talking about how lousy his new team has looked this summer.

There were supposed to be protests outside of Lincoln Financial Field last night, anti-Vick protests by animal-rights activists and pro-Vick protests by the NAACP and other groups. The reality is that the passions on display were as hot as a wet match. By all accounts, the sum total of the protesters could have fit into two minivans.

The fan base was supposed to be terribly, painfully, horribly, inhumanly, unnecessarily divided by the Eagles' signing of Vick. The reality is that the guy received a semistanding ovation when he entered the game on the Eagles' second offensive play. If anyone booed in what was then a stadium that was two-thirds full, I didn't hear him.

"I can't explain the feeling," Vick said afterward. "It was unbelievable, the way that I was embraced, just a warm welcome. It actually made me screw up one of my reads. I wanted to please the crowd and I actually made a bad play [by running instead of giving the ball to a running back] . . . It was awesome, an awesome feeling."

There was genuine excitement in the stands when Vick first ran out there. There was some applause and a persistent curiosity for each of the half-dozen plays in which Vick participated. On one, he completed a 13-yard pass to Hank Baskett, a nice throw. Another time, he ran around the left side and looked, frankly, pretty tentative.

"I didn't think it was going to be that positive," he said. "I didn't know what to expect. I was running out there on the field and I was listening to see what the reaction was going to be and I was very pleased . . . I didn't expect that reaction but I was very thankful."

There was no great splash. There was no crushing disappointment. There was just a football player, 2 years removed from the game, making his first steps of re-entrance.

In short, it was only memorable for what it wasn't.

"I really think most people support him," Grant Thomas, the guy in the Vick jersey, was saying. "That's why I bought the shirt - to support him. I think everybody deserves a second chance. He did his time and he has a right to earn his living."

But would you feel the same way if he played for somebody else? Thomas, an Eagles fan who comes up to the games from Virginia, paused and smiled.

"Probably," he said. "But I like it better because he's with us."

It has always been the truth, and everyone has always known it - that is, that this would end up being a football story in the end, and that Vick's potential to help the Eagles win games would overshadow everything else for the overwhelming majority of fans. And we all got a taste of that last night, even though it was an exhibition game.

Walking around the plaza, Jason Carletti, of Boothwyn, held up a sign that read, "Jaws, Maybe This #7 Can Help Us Win a Ring." Asked why he was taking a shot at Ron Jaworski, the Eagles' most famous No. 7, Carletti said he was mad about something Jaworski said on ESPN about the whole Vick business. Then he called Jaworski an unprintable name.

It was not the only sign. At least two others were a variation of "Who Let the Dog Out?" That shirts and signs mocked the sincere feelings of animal-rights activists was lousy, frankly, but this was all as predictable as the sunrise. Anybody who professes surprise is either lying or naive.

The involvement of the NAACP in the discussion has brought eye-rolls from many. There is a point, though, if you are willing to look for it. Simply, it is this question: Should the statement "The man did his time" be the controlling sentiment here or not? Animal-rights activists say no. The NAACP says yes. Animal-rights people love their pets and their position is understandable. The NAACP represents a community where black males are incarcerated at 6.6 times the rate of white males and its position is just as understandable.

The problem is that this nugget of conversation gets lost in the circus, or the attempts at circus. Kaven Wilson, an African-American, said he had no time for it even as he wore his "That's My Dawg" T-shirt.

"This doesn't have anything to do with race," he said. "[The NAACP] is in sympathy with him, I guess, because he served his time and deserves a second chance, and he didn't grow up in a house with a white picket fence. I get that. But other than that, I don't know why they're involved.

"This is a football game," Wilson said.

And not much more. That was the lesson, more than anything, on the first night that Michael Vick played for the Eagles.

"It was kind of a surreal feeling when I was coming out of the locker room," he said. "See all these big guys in front of me. See Eagles, Philadelphia Eagles, the symbol on the helmet, the green and the white. I had to kind of pinch myself, just to remind myself that it was real. It was something that I've been waiting for for a long time . . .

"It's been a long journey for me and I just want to do it right this time around and make the most of my situation."

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