When you’re a skill-player who is drafted #1 overall into the National Football League, it’s because there’s something absolutely special about you. For the hundreds of college football players who vie for face time during their playing tenure, to be the one who stands out the most is a rare and unique opportunity.
It’s an unmistakable message that says; “You are so special, and we, as the team with the first selection, getting to choose any available college player that we want, are selecting you to be our man. We want you to help lead us to victory, to march us toward a Super Bowl crown, and possibly be the face of our franchise”.
So it goes without saying that, in order to obtain the services of Michael Vick, the Falcons made some sacrifices. After all, don’t you have to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet? But what an omelet it was. Once Vick took over the starting role from Chris Chandler that season, he scrambled fast and didn’t look back. Three years removed from a crushing defeat in Super Bowl XXXIII to Denver, the Falcons fans had reason to be optimistic.
This blur, this….this thing that was avoiding defensive linemen, sidestepping linebackers, throwing over cornerbacks, and skipping past safeties, was now the talk of the league. Sure, every fan had seen a quarterback capable of running with the ball, but….nothing like they were witnessing. Though not technically perfect in a traditional sense, Vick demonstrated athletic defiance. Pass rushes became futile against his ridiculous foot speed. Opposing coaches found it frustrating to game plan against a player with the improvisational skills of a seasoned stage comic. He could have statistics that would wilt under any conventional scrutiny, but Vick would still win the game for his team just by, well, being Vick. He was seemingly immune to normal; bulletproof to all football logic. For God’s sake, the man led the Falcons to the NFC Championship game in 2004 with a 78.1 passer rating and still had a realistic chance at beating the Philadelphia Eagles. Who does that?
The same man who gets convicted of financing a dog fighting ring in Surry County, Virginia.
Unless you’ve lived under a rock these last few years, or you pawned the television to pay the cable bill, then you’re well aware of Michael Vick’s deplorable hobby by now. By financing, and participating, in a barbaric “sport” that demeans, mistreats, and ends the lives of living creatures, Vick pled guilty and was sacked by something other than a hungry defense. There was no avoiding the hit that came in the form of a twenty-three month sentence. Ushered off to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, Vick had lost everything. His freedom, for sure. But his endorsements, his credibility, the majority of his fan support, and possibly his chance to play football again, were wiped off the slate in an instant.
In 2001, he was a coveted athlete, as well as the poster child for the NFL’s future. In 2004, he was the leader of a contending franchise. In 2007, he was a convicted felon, serving his sentence.
Fast forward to 2009, when Vick’s sentence ended. Excepting any further chastening from Commissioner Roger Goodell, he was free to return to the NFL. When the Atlanta Falcons decided to wash their hands of the convict in June of that year, it opened up the buyer’s market. Any of the other thirty-one teams that wanted a talented, yet possibly rusty quarterback with a renowned criminal history on their team, was free to acquire him, should they meet his price.
Can you imagine my surprise as an Eagles fan when my local CBS Sports affiliate sent me the text alert with the big news? On August 13, 2009, the firestorm began in the Delaware Valley.
As an Eagles apologist (with years of practice, believe me), I was able to rationalize the Vick signing with the realization that, although he had done unspeakable things to relatively innocent animals, he had served his assigned punishment. Convicted felons who are released from prison are free to rejoin society, provided that they fulfill all further stipulations of their release. Contrition is not a requirement, but it certainly helps if you’re a public figure like Vick is. After all, the man has legions of fans, including many new ones in the Philadelphia area who are looking to see if his addition to the team can generate a winning spark.
Amongst that new-found fan base are children, and lots of them. These are the ones who are tomorrow’s football stars, after all. As they hone their skills in sandlots, parks, backyards, and high school fields with their friends and peers, they look to the professional game for stars to emulate. This is, of course, where Vick has to set his best example. Breaking off big runs and stymieing the defense to help the Eagles win? Good influence. Having run-ins with the law and playing with an unsportsmanlike attitude? Bad influence. Charles Barkley may have tried to argue that athletes are not role-models, but there’s no choice in the matter. Public figures are called upon to set examples, since it’s the middle class audience that pays their salaries.
But when Vick takes the field for the first time as an Eagle this weekend, there’s somebody else out there that could benefit from his example. Not a kid, mind you.
I’m talking about Plaxico Burress.
Burress, most recently one of the saviors for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, just began his own two-year prison sentence recently for an equally memorable crime. Briefly, he brought an unregistered semi-automatic pistol into a nightclub into a New York City nightclub in November 2008, discharged it accidentally in his pants, and wounded his own thigh. The fallout was quite the downward spiral: he was placed on indefinite suspension by the Giants and eventually released from his contract. He was indicted by the grand jury for his possession and for reckless endangerment, and, in the end, received his firm sentence. Burress’ touchdown that gave the Giants their third Super Bowl title is now a distant memory. One memory that he will never have the thrill to experience? The birth of his second child, slated to take place this November.
Burress will have plenty of time to sit in Riker’s Island and ponder over the night where it all went wrong for him. At 32, there’s a very slim chance that he will become the dominant and productive wide receiver he once was, if he even returns to football at all. He’ll be 34 or 35 when he crosses that bridge, and very few receivers make it to that age. Sure, teams may covet the fact that he’s 6’5″ and has great playing instincts, but will it be enough?
In Michael Vick’s mind, at some point during his sentence, he had to wonder if he would ever get the chance to be “Michael Vick: Enigmatic Quarterback” again. At 29, he still has his speed, conditioning, youth, and instincts at his disposal, and it was a no brainer that some team would risk the public outcry to have his skills in their employ. But when you’re in your mid thirties, like Burress will be, there’s no guarantees.
When Vick was signed by the Eagles last month, the public reception wasn’t just divided, but it was vociferous. News outlets, not just the sports ones, had it covered. The media frenzy, however, has died down considerably since that time. Much of it has to do with Vick’s work toward repairing his image. While no one will forget what he has done, his apology at the press conference, his vow to set better examples, and his speaking engagement at Nueva Esperanza Academy in Philadelphia before 200 students, are public relations boons. If these reparations continue, and Vick remains a humble figure who avoids trouble for the rest of his life, the Bad Newz Kennels incident may once and for all be water under the bridge.
That might just be worth more than that Super Bowl ring that he earned.
When he isn’t watching WWE, TNA, or his beloved Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies, Justin Henry can be found writing. It is his passion as well as his goal in life to become a well-regarded (as well as well-paid) columnist or author. He tweets at twitter.com/notoriousjrh and facebooks himself at http://www.facebook.com/notoriousjrh.
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