Keeping Score

Prison to Pro Bowl: The Meaning of Michael Vick

He was once an imprisoned pariah. Now, after an MVP-caliber season, he's playing in the Pro Bowl. What lessons has Michael Vick taught us?

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John Biever / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles QB Michael Vick

The Road Back

Prison was a predictable hell, according to Vick. “There are too many times in prison when you’re at a low,” he says. “Seeing my kids walk out each and every weekend and not being able to walk out with them — that was probably the toughest thing I had to deal with. It was horrible.” So were his future prospects. In 2009, former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, a devout Christian who has dedicated his postcoaching career to prison ministry, met Vick in Leavenworth. Dungy, who often ministers to murderers, received unprecedented backlash for mentoring Vick. “When you’re involved in prison ministry, people in general say, ‘Oh, that’s great — it’s good you go into those prisons and try to give these guys hope. Keep doing that,” he says. “But then on this one, it was, ‘How can you go see this guy after what he’d done? We’re not going to support your charities anymore.’ It was bizarre.”

After Vick was released from prison in July 2009, it wasn’t clear whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has built a reputation for harsh discipline, would let him back into the league. Goodell decided to reinstate Vick under a zero-tolerance policy. While he was considering Vick’s case, Goodell recalls meeting with Vick and his camp. A Vick associate started to blame bad influences for the transgressions. “Michael stopped him and said, ‘No, it was me,’ ” Goodell says. “He didn’t in any way try to push the idea that this was caused by somebody else. I thought that was impressive.”

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Eagles coach Andy Reid, whose two sons had done jail time for drug-related offenses, pushed to sign Vick. Skeptical Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who has two dogs, including one he had rescued from abuse, grilled Vick. “I tried really hard to read his eyes and get past the words,” Lurie says. “There was a sort of depth, an intensity. This wasn’t some sort of speech.” Vick carried an intense work ethic onto the field. He picked Dungy’s brain about how Peyton Manning, his star with the Colts, prepared for games. He worked out, fine-tuned his throwing motion and, for the first time, became a true quarterback.

What Vick Says About America

With a football in his hands, Vick creates a certain kind of hysteria. That fervor follows him off the field. Whereas Vick was once one of the most demonized people in the country, now he’s among the most divisive. In late December, President Obama called Lurie to praise him for trying to power the team’s stadium with alternative energy. He also slipped him a compliment for giving Vick another shot. Animal-rights activists erupted. Fox pundit Tucker Carlson objected to Obama’s sentiment, going so far as to say on the air that Vick “should have been executed” for his role in the dogfighting.

Vick’s resurrection has been instructive on many levels. First, America’s connection with its dogs is far from trite. Second, when talking about the athletic achievements of young black men in this country, you can never sweep away race. Just spend some time in the African-American enclaves of Philadelphia, where people wish the problems plaguing their neighborhoods received a slither of the outrage accompanying a black man who hurt dogs. “We see all these murders, and you’re really going to go on about dead dogs?” says Craig Styles, 40, a barber at the As-Salaamu-Alaikum shop in North Philly. “And he already did his time? Let it the f___ go.”

Further, Vick exposes the hypocrisy of our criminal-justice debate. In a time of dangerously strapped public budgets, everyone agrees that recidivism is too costly. So here comes a man who served his time, secured himself a job — a very specialized and lucrative one, yes, but a job nonetheless — and by all accounts is doing community-service work beyond what his sentence required. He’s an example of how the system should work. Still, many despise his presence on the field.

“I can’t satisfy everyone,” Vick says. “Only the people who are willing to listen, only the people who have sincerity in their heart, only the people who are real, are genuine, who understand the big picture.”

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Vick’s saga offers real lessons about redemption. During the 2009 season, Vick was also a solid citizen — but a backup quarterback who did little to impress football fans. Few were glorifying his postprison life when he was sitting on the sidelines. He was still Michael Vick, the despicable dogfighter. So what, exclaims the skeptic: Now we’re going to sing his praises and give his off-field message to America’s youth — don’t waste your God-given talent; treat animals with respect — extra attention because he played well? We’re really going to fall into that trap again? Haven’t we learned from Tiger Woods and so many other athletes that mistaking on-field excellence for off-field character is a perilous pastime? “Forgiving him because he’s excellent at football is actually a barbaric notion,” says John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Biola University, an Evangelical college in Southern California.

That’s a harsh but fair sentiment — on the surface. A deeper look into Vick’s second chance reveals a more upbeat view. Redemption can be defined as atonement for guilt. Vick was guilty of wasting his gifts; such squandering arguably led to his horrible acts. His exploits on the field are not in and of themselves redeeming. It’s how he achieved them that is. Vick exited prison and worked harder than ever, transforming himself into a better quarterback than he was before his punishment. No matter what you think of Vick personally, that’s an act of atonement.

Yes, America has always been too obsessed with sports and always will be. No one should forgive (or choose not to forgive) Vick for animal murder based on his performance on the field. All opinions of his dogfighting are personal and perfectly legitimate. You can still hate Michael Vick. But even if you do, you can say this guilt-free: by becoming a star for the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Vick, in a real sense, has been redeemed.

See Joel Stein’s take on football clichés.

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