(This story was published in 2007).

By: Matt Hennie

The career of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is going to the dogs, but his NFL descent has pushed Joey Harrington to the front of the line. Some gay fans couldn’t be happier.

Harrington, 28, a 6-foot-4, five-year veteran who is also a jazz pianist, comes with cover guy looks and has long been a favorite of Outsports readers. The Falcons acquired the 28-year-old free agent earlier this year soon after he returned from his honeymoon, a move that didn’t go unnoticed by gay Falcons fans in search of an object for their affection since defensive end Patrick Kerney left for the Seattle Seahawks.

And with all of the controversy swirling around Vick and the Falcons during the pre-season, a little Harrington goes a long way.

“I’m excited about the season and yes, I find Harrington attractive. Who wouldn’t?” says Gregory Hendricks, a gay Falcons fan in Atlanta. “Even my gay friends who don’t like football, they like him. All of my friends who hate sports, once they see him they say, ‘Hey, I’ll go to a game to see him.’ ”

Harrington came to the Falcons in April as a backup to Vick, the face of the franchise. He was expected to be nothing but a backup after less-than-stellar stints with Detroit and Miami. But that has all changed after Vick pleaded guilty in federal court on charges relating to dog fighting. He faces sentencing in December and the NFL has levied an indefinite suspension.

The legal drama surrounding Vick has overshadowed the team throughout the summer, leaving Falcons fans anxious for football to overtake all else when the season opens Sept. 9 at Minnesota. Though he’ll miss the opener due to a cruise, longtime season-ticket holder Jonathan Karron, who is gay, said he’ll be listening to the game on satellite radio.

“I’ve been through the good and bad with the Falcons. I’ve stuck with them through thick and thin,” says Karron, a fan since he was a child and a season ticket holder for 15 years. “I want someone to help the team, not a hunk. It would be great to have both. But if you watch football, you want the players to perform. You don’t watch because the players are hot.”

Karron, though, admits to being a Harrington fan since the quarterback’s days as a Duck at the University of Oregon, where he started 28 games and became a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 2001. Karron hopes the Falcons have talent elsewhere to support Harrington.

“Maybe the Falcons will provide a clean slate for him. I am hoping they have some talent around him. I have my fingers crossed. I am always the optimist,” Karron says. “I am hoping he can return to some of that college form.”

Harrington grabbed the national spotlight in June 2001, when the Ducks paid $250,000 to plaster his likeness in Times Square with a 10-story billboard promoting him as “Joey Heisman.” He later graced the covers of “Sports Illustrated” and “ESPN The Magazine.” Harrington didn’t win the Heisman Trophy but later was picked third overall in the 2002 NFL draft by the Lions.

In 2004, Harrington took some verbal shots in the form of bizarre comments by Fox NFL analyst Tony Siragusa who disparaged Harrington for being “sophisticated,” then added: “He’s the kind of guy that’s on the other side of the club than I am. He’s over there with the champagne and caviar. And also the strawberries and chocolate, you know?” Harrington retorted: “”Why am I not his kind of guy? Because I was cordial in a production meeting? Because I tried to be articulate? Because I smile when I play? Because I enjoy myself out there? Because I’m not a ‘Billy Badass?’ ”

To Falcon fans, all that is in the past. “Joey Harrington’s been a favorite of mine since he played at Oregon,” says Hendricks, who attends a few Falcons home games each season. “After the billboard, that’s when I became a fan. I’m very happy he plays in Atlanta now. I hope he does well. He’s never really lived up to his potential, so maybe he will do good here. “

Mike Horton, a gay football fan in Atlanta who roots for the New England Patriots, says Harrington may change his perspective and prompt him to give the Falcons a second look. “It’s interesting what an extreme opposite Harrington is to our previous quarterback. I like the fact that he’s suave and polished, but boy, is he pretty. I think I might try to make a few more games this year,” he says.

Brian Johnson, a gay University of Georgia graduate who lives in Atlanta, is eagerly anticipating the Dogs season opener on Sept. 1. He’s “primarily a college football fan – 99%” but the “other 1% is saved for Joey Harrington and the Falcons.”

“I’m a Falcons fan only because I was born and raised here, but I wouldn’t say I get upset when they lose,” Johnson says. “Harrington is hot. He is much better looking than Michael Vick, much easier on the eyes and the dogs.”

Matt Hennie is a writer based in Atlanta.