Sometime in the next few days, Michael Vick will step outside of prison walls and straight into hell.
He will have supporters. That’s fine. The man has paid his debt to society, slept on a cot in Leavenworth for several months and took a bigger hit to his status, his reputation and his income than possibly any athlete in history.
He will have detractors. That’s also fine. Because for as much as Vick has every right to resume his football career, you have every right not to like it. It’s why so many NFL executives are sitting alone in the dark today, weighing that risk-reward thing.
But Vick’s ability to return to football will be based on something far more impactful than the strength of his legs or arm. A New York Times story this week included a common but equally bizarre assumption: “Vick may still be better than half the quarterbacks on NFL rosters.”
If this were all about skill, Vick never would have been in jail to begin with.
This isn’t 2001, when he was embraced by a punch-drunk franchise in a lampooned sports city. This isn’t 2004 when he brought the Falcons to within a victory of the Super Bowl and was given a $130 million contract.
In 2009, Michael Vick is not a hero or a marketing centerpiece. He is an ex-felon and a marketing pariah.
He will be vilified by half the fans in the city he plays in and most fans everywhere else. He will have every move scrutinized by a public and media ready to pounce and mock and an NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, who didn’t like being lied to.
He will be in a locker room where most teammates will say the right thing, something like, “He’s served his time. If he can help us win, I support him.”
But those same players will then step outside and see the picket signs, the news crews, the elephants, the 17 clowns trying stuff themselves into a Volkswagen and maybe that same plane that two years ago circled the field at Falcons’ training camp with a banner reading: “New Team Name: Dog Killers.” And they will think, “I don’t need this. We don’t need this. I wish he was someplace else.”
The success of any pro athlete, particularly an NFL quarterback, is not fast legs or a strong arm. It’s all of those things Vick failed miserably at: leadership, work ethic, resolve, toughness, maturity, teamwork, character.
Michael Vick’s failure as a quarterback had very little to do with his passing accuracy. It had almost everything to do with the intangibles. Vick must come by them in the worst of circumstances. He must come by them when our last memory of him was looking feeble in a season-ending game at Philadelphia, accepting no responsibility for going 2-6 down the stretch and losing 14 of his last 24 starts. He once reacted to the pressure by giving the middle finger to fans at a home game. He all but threw his coach, Jim Mora, and teammates under the bus after that loss to the Eagles. Then he began his off-season with a suspicious water bottle at the Miami airport, was eventually let go by police and rather than breathe a thankful sigh of relief, he suggested maybe somebody was trying to frame him.
Leaders don’t do that. Any of that.
If Vick can return, if he can endure the taunts and grow up and flash any semblance of the magic he once showed us on a football field, this comeback story will top all others.
Unfortunately, the backdrop suggests otherwise. And at least in prison, there has been solitude.