Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Road Less Travelled

The fall was incomparable. The rise has been incomprehensible.

It was July 17, 2007. Atlanta Falcons star QB Michael Vick is indicted, along with three others on multiple charges in relation to their dogfighting ring, Bad Newz Kennelz, which was housed on property owned by Vick in Surry County, Virginia. The details of what went on at these dogfighting events were enough to weaken the knees of animal lovers everywhere (or just people who have a soul). Dogs would be electrocuted, shot, drowned and hung; it’s hard to tell whether or not the brutality even stopped there. The behaviors of Vick and his co-defendants were beyond reprehensible.

Then, somehow, things got worse for Michael Vick.

After the charges were filed, Vick issued a widely criticized prepared statement, in which he seemed to show little emotion and even less remorse. Initially, Vick and his co-defendants plead not guilty, but all changed their pleas after Tony Taylor had issued his “summary of the facts”, which detailed the unconscionable treatment that the Bad Newz Kennelz dogs went through. Taylor’s account put Vick at center stage; fingered him as being the ringleader the whole time. Within days, Vick and his other comrades changed their not guilty pleas.

Most football fans expected Vick to get preferential treatment. Perhaps a short stay in a cozy, low security prison (maybe in a cell next to Martha Stewart). When two of Vick’s co-defendants received 18-21 months, and Tony Taylor received 60 days, that expectation persisted.

Then, Judge Henry Hudson threw a haymaker. Vick would receive a 23 month prison sentence, and there would be no cushy, lavish celebrity prison.

Vick was heading to Leavenworth, Kansas; to one of the largest, highest security prisons in the country. Months into his prison sentence, after continuing to support friends and family, Michael Vick filed for bankruptcy, nearly a year after his indictment.

The collapse was complete. It took one year for Michael Vick to become the biggest pariah in sports since O.J. Simpson. Almost universally despised and with no money in the bank, Vick hit rock bottom. Not many people expected a return to his glory days with the Falcons; some wondered if he would ever play football again. Perhaps more telling was the fact that no one wanted to see him return.

I should know. I was one of them.

I’ve grown up, as many of us have, with a true affinity for dogs. Man’s best friend? You’re damn right they are. I struggled to hold back tears thinking about what happened at 1915 Moonlight Road. I rejoiced when I heard Vick’s sentence, overjoyed at the severity of his punishment. In 2007-2008, I counted myself among Vick’s biggest detractors. I was more than happy to watch him fade into oblivion.

But then something strange happened. Vick started doing all the right things. While he was in prison, and after his release, Vick called upon the Big Brother of the NFL, Tony Dungy. Dungy was able to help Vick contact teams to gauge interest, and along with a nudge by quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles took a chance on Vick. PETA protestors took the streets of Philly, calling for owner Jeffrey Lurie’s head. All the while, Vick silently pressed on, working diligently with the Humane Society as one of their main spokespeople.

One thing was plainly apparent though. Vick had lost a step. When on the field, Vick looked uncomfortable and out of shape; a far cry from his days with Atlanta.

Regardless of his performance on the field, praise started to slowly roll in. He was the unanimous winner of the Ed Block Courage Award, which was voted on by his Eagles teammates. After the offseason trade of Donovan McNabb, Vick graciously accepted the backup role once again, this time to youngster Kevin Kolb.

Then fate intervened. On opening day against Green Bay, in a lopsided game, Kolb was crushed by Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews, suffering a concussion and unable to return. Cue Vick’s opportunity. Vick took over the game, slinging the ball with accuracy that he never had, and running with the legs that we wrote off years ago.

The league hasn’t been the same since. Vick has combined his physical gifts with the work ethic and mental tenacity that is necessary to be a star quarterback. That was certainly on display this past Monday night, as Vick dissected the Redskins defense in one of the most dominating performances in NFL history.

The turbulence of the past 3 years has led us to one question: Who is the real Michael Vick? Is he still the same person who coldly proclaimed his innocence in front of reporters? Or is he the happy, hardworking star quarterback and animal rights activist? It’s a question that every football fan has pondered over the past year. We didn’t have a choice, Vick’s post-prison behavior forced us to ask it. The fact that we’re even considering that Vick could have changed should be seen as a victory.

Regardless of whether or not you believe that Vick is a different person now, we ought to thank him. Vick has made us question our preconceived notions, both of troubled athletes, and broadly, society as a whole. We must at least consider that people can, in fact, change. Americans pride themselves on being a forgiving and tolerant people, a nation of second chances. Hell, America was founded as a second chance. So can we live up to that? Do we have it in our hearts to embrace the repentant?

It is a question of faith and trust. And mine are in Michael Vick.

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