My wife overheard me talking about Michael Vick this week. I made the mistake of mentioning how much I enjoyed his recent resurgence. In retrospect, I should have just said that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or that men should be allowed to trade their wives in every six years like cars. She waited for me to hang up, then asked calmly, “What’s going on with Michael Vick?”
I explained that Vick had won the starting job in Philly, rejuvenated his career and emerged as the feel-good story of the 2010 NFL season. He’s been the most valuable player in the league. It looked like a transition year for the Eagles as recently as halftime of Week 1. Now they think they can win the NFC East. All because of him.
My wife processed this information the same way you would absorb a bad diagnosis from a doctor. She shook her head.
“The Dooze would be rolling around in her grave if we didn’t cremate her,” she said coldly.
My wife hates Michael Vick for the same reason most people hate him: She loves dogs. All animals, actually. Even after I explained that Vick rehabilitated his life, renounced dogfighting and became a spokesman for the Humane Society, she shook her head in disgust.
“I can’t believe you fell for that crap,” she said. “He’s just doing it for the PR and to save his career. Anyone who hurts animals like he did has a dark side to them. That side doesn’t go away. He can say all he wants. I know what he did. You’d care if you still loved dogs.”
Total dig. And partially justified. You might remember cancer claimed our first dog, the Dooze, in January of 2009. The next few weeks were brutal. The Dooze’s bastard half-brother, Rufus — best described as Marley after four cocktails — wandered around like a zombie and spent every night sleeping in Dooze’s spot near the front door. My wife cried five times a day and her eyes became perpetually puffy. Our daughter kept saying she missed Dooze, which only made my wife cry more. Only when we adopted a mutt named Olivia in April did things start to feel normal again. Puppies have a way of breathing new life into a family and making you forget that you just watched your last dog waste away.
I don’t love Rufus or Olivia as much as I loved the Dooze. I can’t help it. She was our first and our best. One of a kind. My wife derisively claims Dooze’s death turned me into a “dog liker” instead of a “dog lover.” I guess that’s fair. Maybe I should walk our dogs more. Maybe I shouldn’t scream “It should have been you!” at Rufus every time he craps on the rug or swipes a hot dog off the counter. Maybe I shouldn’t make fun of Olivia’s looks so relentlessly that my wife is convinced that I’m giving her a complex. (In my defense, she’s historically ugly. I don’t even want to include her in our family Christmas photo because her pea head and bulbous body will distract people from seeing our kids.) But considering I allow our two dogs to sleep on our bed every night, and considering I’ve had dogs my entire life, I certainly fit the profile of someone who should be carrying around a 16-gallon jug of haterade for Michael Vick.
But I can’t do it. And I can’t do it for four reasons …
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1. Maybe I’ve seen too many sports movies. Maybe I’m a forgiving person. Maybe I like rooting for underdogs. Maybe I don’t like when someone squanders his or her talent. Maybe I missed watching him play. Maybe it’s all of those things. I just know that I usually have trouble rooting against memorable athletes who hit rock bottom, regroup and bounce back … unless that person plays for the Lakers or Yankees. I started rooting for Tiger again almost immediately after he crashed his Escalade. I love that Josh Hamilton is leading the American League in hitting. I’m still bummed out that Lloyd Daniels, Roy Tarpley and Marcus Dupree never made it. I rooted for Mike Tyson after his prison release. I even enjoyed coach-choker Latrell Sprewell reinventing himself with the Knicks.
If Vick didn’t pay a reasonable price for his sins, it would be one thing. But he torched his career, blew a lucrative contract, went bankrupt, spent 19 months in prison and became a public pariah. That wasn’t a reasonable price? Every prison sentence has four goals: remove a lawbreaking person from society; assess an appropriate penalty; incarcerate the individual as a deterrence from ever breaking the law again; and hopefully, rehabilitate him or her to become a contributing and upstanding member of society. With Vick, the first three goals were accomplished. The fourth goal seems to have been accomplished. What more do you want? Deny him a chance to make a living? Under what constitutional umbrella? The man paid his price.
Yeah, if I spent enough time looking at electrocution photos and rape stand photos, I’d inevitably end up despising him. But dogfighting isn’t much more abhorrent than some of the other ways we abuse animals. Ever watch what happens when a deer gets shot by a hunter but doesn’t die right away? Ever watch a group of turkeys get slaughtered for Thanksgiving? Ever watch how a mink coat gets made? Ever research what happens to greyhounds once they stop racing? Hell, I plowed through a veal chop at dinner a few weeks ago. It was delicious. Does that mean I condone the creepy veal industry? Implicitly, yeah, it kinda does. Why didn’t it bother me as I was putting salt on my chop and oooohing and ahhhhing about how tender the meat was? I don’t know. I wish I knew. More of us are hypocrites about this stuff than we realize.
2. Generations of people grew up with dogfighting in the South (especially in poorer regions), and it’s like anything else: Sometimes you don’t fully realize something is wrong if you never knew anything else. We cannot ignore the cultural elements here. Not everyone likes dogs or sees them as companions, guardians or family members. I have friends who regard dogs warily and act rattled around them. Certain religions believe dogs are unclean. (I once lived in a West Hollywood neighborhood heavy with Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, some of whom could barely conceal their disgust with the Dooze. A few even hissed at her. This drove my wife crazy, but hey, dogs mean different things to different people.) When Vick’s initial comeback was receiving so much attention last summer, I dined with “30 for 30” filmmaker Steve James (a Virginia native like Vick), who wondered if Vick’s saga was more racially driven than anyone realized. James grew up with African-Americans who were terrified of dogs because of what happened in the 1960s and earlier, when police frequently used attack dogs to “quell” racial protests. Could a mistrust of dogs be handed down to future generations? Of course. Again, not everyone likes dogs.
When Vick renounced dogfighting, many people (my wife included) thought he did so because it was the politically correct move. But what if he really did realize it was wrong? Maybe he never grew up with pooches that licked his face and jumped around happily when he came home. Maybe he never played fetch with dogs, took them swimming at special dog beaches, took them hiking or did anything that would humanize them. Had he done any of those things, it would have bothered him as his pit bulls were ripping each other apart. Can I blame him for organizing an illegal underground gambling ring, breaking the law and surrounding himself with the wrong people? Of course. Do I think he should have paid a price? Yes. And he did.
3. Much like how O.J. Simpson raised awareness about domestic abuse, Vick did the same for animal abuse. Both men did it unwittingly and disgraced themselves in the process, but there’s a crucial difference: By continuing his football career, becoming an animal rights activist and repeatedly acknowledging his mistakes, Vick will do more good than harm. That’s what made it so crazy when PETA protested during the early stages of Vick’s comeback. What was it protesting? That a contrite person who paid for his sins and vowed to be an animal rights advocate … um … shouldn’t do those things? An organization allegedly devoted to the welfare of animals chose to antagonize someone who, whether it liked it or not, could now improve the welfare of animals. Savvy! But hey, that’s America in the 21st century for you: Extremists tend to favor being extreme over exercising common sense.
Eventually, Vick found his voice as a spokesman for the Humane Society. Cynics might say Vick reached that point for the wrong reasons; optimists might say it ended beneficially and that’s all that matters. But if you believe in redemption, how can you not admire the way Vick humbly reinvented himself, dumped every negative influence in his life, surrounded himself with the right voices, picked an NFL franchise that was devoted to making him a better person, quickly won over his teammates and coaches, gracefully handled every interview (and a few biting questions), stayed out of trouble, waited patiently for a chance to shine, then crushed that chance when he got it? What else is left? Was there a box on the “How to salvage your career and character” checklist that Michael Vick didn’t check?
4. Selfishly, I missed watching the dude play. Great athletes resonate for one or more of the following reasons …
They are original prototypes.
They are breathtaking to watch.
They are impossibly consistent.
They get better when it matters.
They are transcendently great.
That’s really it. Those five things. Vick nailed the first two. When Vick had it going — like he did during the Lambeau upset in Round 1 of the 2002 playoffs, or the Round 2 massacre of the 2004 Rams — everyone glanced around in disbelief and said, “If that guy ever puts it all together, look out.” Then the Falcons fell apart, the dog scandal happened and that was that.
Like many, I thought Vick’s skills had atrophied from his time in the joint — no different from how Mike Tyson’s or Jamal Lewis’ did — and that running quarterbacks rarely age well. And really, I wasn’t wrong. Only after spending a grueling summer training with a Virginia Beach track coach did Vick’s legs come back. These past three Sundays, he looked like the old Michael again: scampering around like a halfback, unleashing left-handed cannons and even missing a few wide-open guys (opening up the whole, “Will he ever be accurate enough to win a Super Bowl?” debate yet again). I forgot how much I missed his patented, “You think you have me sacked … only NO! Now it looks like I’m gonna run, only NO!” double move that always ends with him taking two steps backward, setting his feet and zipping a frozen rope for a first down.
Sure, the schedule broke perfectly for him: two garbage-time quarters against Green Bay, then gimme games against Jacksonville and Detroit (two of the league’s worst teams). We haven’t seen him face an aggressive, hungry defense yet. But anyone who says Vick didn’t distinguish himself these first three weeks is lying. There’s no quarterback quite like him; not now, not five years ago, not five years from now. He’s an original prototype. During his occasionally electric Jacksonville performance, Vick made one play that instantly made me picture my friend Whitlock giggling on his sofa and typing a “Michael Vick is doing his damned thang!” tweet. Sure enough, the tweet popped up on my feed a few seconds later. How many football players resonate quite like that?
Whether he’s 70 percent of what he was in Atlanta, 90 percent, 60 percent … we’ll know that answer soon enough. But Vick’s recent resurgence made me remember how lousy his Atlanta offenses were. Check out his numbers from 2002 to 2006, when Atlanta won 37 of the 64 games he started:
2002 (15 games): 2,936 yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs, 81.6 rating, 777 rushing yards (8 TDs)
2003 (4 games): 585 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs, 69.0 rating, 255 rushing yards (1 TD)
2004 (15 games): 2,313 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs, 78.1 rating, 902 rushing yards (3 TDs)
2005 (15 games): 2,412 yards, 15 TDs, 13 INTs, 73.1 rating, 597 rushing yards (6 TDs)
2006 (16 games): 2,474 yards, 20 TDs, 13 INTs, 75.7 rating, 1,039 rushing yards (2 TDs)
Not great, right? You could make a pretty strong “over … rated [clap clap clap-clap-clap]” case — until you look at his receivers. Much like Tracy McGrady during his Orlando apex, Vick’s supporting cast was significantly worse than we realized at the time. These were the six best seasons by any Atlanta receiver during that 2002-2006 stretch:
Alge Crumpler (’05): 877 yards, 65 catches, 5 TDs
Brian Finneran (’02): 838 yards, 56 catches, 6 TDs
Peerless Price (’03): 838 yards, 64 catches, 3 TDs
Alge Crumpler (’06): 780 yards, 56 catches, 7 TDs
Alge Crumpler (’04): 774 yards, 48 catches, 8 TDs
Brian Finneran (’05): 611 yards, 50 catches, 2 TDs
Are you kidding me???? Vick’s best targets in 2002 were Finneran and Crumpler (455 yards, 2 TDs). Yikes. The Falcons made big plays for Price (2003) and Ashley Lelie (2006); neither guy made his expected impact. They spent first-rounders on Michael Jenkins in 2004 (in 2005-06: 75 catches, 954 yards, 10 TDs) and Roddy White in 2005 (2005-06: 59 catches, 952 yards, 3 TDs); by the time White’s career belatedly bloomed, Vick was gone. And Vick’s last two Atlanta coaches (Dan Reeves and Jim Mora Jr.) lasted one whole NFL head-coaching season combined after they left. It’s possible that Vick never had a fair chance to thrive in Atlanta, and that a half-decent coach/receiving crew of Andy Reid, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek might be a career-altering upgrade over anything he’s ever had. If so, that means the real Vick is being unleashed. No pun intended.
Some people aren’t ready for his belated coming-out party. My wife happens to be one of them. Back when she was contributing football sidebars for this column, before my son started waking up at 5:30 every morning and turning her brain into Greek yogurt, she wrote that “Vick should eat dog food and drink out of the toilet for the entire time he’s in jail. Anyone who would hurt a dog deserves to be treated like one.” She will always see him as the Bad Newz Kennelz guy. Even today, despite his Humane Society work, she blames him for turning everyone against pit bulls.
“Nobody wants them anymore,” she says. “Dog pounds and rescue shelters are filled with them. People are afraid of them. They’re actually sweet dogs, they only get violent if they’re trained incorrectly. Michael Vick gave them a stigma. He ended up killing more dogs than just the ones he fought.”
“You’re looking for any reason not to forgive him,” I said.
“I can’t forgive anyone who does … that. I am a dog lover. You are a dog liker.”
Fair enough. But I believe in second chances for anyone who screwed up because they were immature, came from a poor background or were surrounded by unseemly influences … as long as that person makes amends. The difference between Vick and LeBron James — another superstar who hailed from a rough background and tarnished his image, only unlike Vick, he did so without intentionally hurting anyone or breaking the law — is that LeBron steadfastly refuses to admit his “Decision” was ruinously handled from start to finish. If he had a do-over, he would ram that butcher’s knife into Cleveland’s back all over again. How do I know this? Because LeBron never jettisoned the sycophants and opportunists who walked him into July’s public relations disaster. And because he still doesn’t seem to comprehend why so many found “The Decision” so revolting, as evidenced by LeBron playing the race card this week. You know, because we’ve been so kind to Brett Favre these past two years.
At some point, LeBron will realize his inner circle led him astray. He will clean house, apologize to Cleveland and seem sincere. He will re-examine his Cavaliers tenure, realize how enabled and coddled he was, then wish someone he trusted had looked him in the eye and said, “Look, you can’t leave Cleveland this way … it’s wrong.” For a variety of reasons, LeBron lived his first 25 years without ever finding such a person. Sometimes you can’t shape your life; sometimes your life shapes you. Nobody knows this better than Michael Vick.
In “Shawshank,” there’s that wonderful scene near the end when the parole board asks if Red has been rehabilitated. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t feel regret,” Red admits. “Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was back then. A young, stupid kid … I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense into him. Tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone.”
I believe Michael Vick talked some sense into himself. Just in time. I like to believe it, anyway. That’s why I root for him every Sunday. And if he doesn’t truly feel he’s changed, then I can only tell you this: He snookered me good.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.