Anyone who lived in Virginia in the 1990s heard plenty about Michael Vick. It was impossible not to. He was another child of the Tidewater region, famous for producing some of the best athletes in the country, even to the point of rivaling California, Texas and Florida in producing football stars, at least at the collegiate level.
Vick never got the national coverage he deserved prior to going to Virginia Tech - back in those days, and still to some extent, the Washington, D.C. newspapers were more interested in covering Maryland sports than southern Virginia - but once he was in college, he took off like a rocket. Virginia Tech alumni were invigorated by Vick's arrival - he made the Hokies matter nationally, and for all Virginia sports fans. And his performance on national TV in a loss against Florida State made him matter to the whole nation.
It's amazing to look back at some of the coverage of Vick prior to the 2001 NFL draft and see how much of what was to come was already being implied. Even then, the questions were lurking in the background: could he handle it?
In the first few seasons after Vick's arrival in the National Football League, it looked like the San Diego Chargers had made a huge mistake passing on him to select LaDainian Tomlinson (he fell to number 5 - can you believe it?) and Drew Brees. He was the Human Highlight Reel. He did things that were just incredible, superhuman - I remember watching a game against the Carolina Panthers where, down to their last play and needing a touchdown, Vick somehow managed to hover an inch above the ground as he flew in to score. His amazing ability revitalized football in Atlanta, coming off 5-11 and 4-12 seasons - his jerseys were everywhere - and put him on the cover of Madden, even though the curse of that video game ultimately doomed his next season.
But in 2006, he broke a 34-year-old record for rushing yards by a quarterback, breaking the century mark. That's an incredible achievement, especially for a kid who just a few years ago was being wheeled around with a cast on his foot by owner Arthur Blank. He was already considered one of the best mobile QBs of all time by many in the NFL. Vick wasn't just a sideshow - he won, too. In 2002, when he was just a 22 year-old kid, Vick did what no other starting quarterback had ever done - winning on the road at Lambeau Field in the playoffs, a performance that, if it ended today, would probably go down as the biggest game of his professional career.
My own favorite Vick clip from his time in the league came in a different game against the Panthers when he staged a fourth quarter comeback by levitating like Superman, inches above the turf (go to the 1:40 mark) to dive into the endzone on a fourth down scramble. So much of his career is encapsulated in that moment - incredibly close to failure, but somehow managing to pull off what was, for others, impossible.
Then, it all came to an end. Vick was foolish enough to commit and fund a series of dogfighting-related criminal activities, mostly by paying for the activities of friends and relatives who turned on him the minute they were arrested, that had only recently become federal offenses. Roger Goodell's announcement this week of his decision on Vick's suspension has riled the sports radio stations and opinion pages across the country once again. Just two years ago, a lifetime ban was being discussed openly. Now, some are crying racism that he was suspended at all.
Let's be clear about this: Michael Vick deserved to go to jail. He broke the law, and he's suffered a major penalty. For a football player, he missed two of his prime seasons. But there is no question in my mind that he deserves a shot to resume his career. And on balance, Goodell's decision is an understandable one, if still - as with all this Commissioner's decisions - a bit heavyhanded.
At the time, I think Gregg Easterbrook took what was a pretty brave stand on this point. While I don't agree with him or with Howard Bryant about the racial nature of this crime - I think that any player would have experienced this sort of reaction and coverage if, say, Jeremy Shockey had committed the same crime, or if Tony Gonzalez was running a cock-fighting ring - I do agree that there's a distinct lack of perspective on this. Looking back, PETA and their lobbying forces successfully convinced the sports media to turn dogfighting - a vile activity, to be sure, but one that's engaged in all too frequently in the South - into the worst possible crime an athlete can engage in. And that's just ridiculous.
Here's the truth: the NFL has had more than its fair share of thugs, criminals, and drug pushers in its recent history. Easterbrook cites the obvious examples of two murderers - that you can still purchase an O.J. Simpson or a Rae Carruth jersey, and that the former is still in the NFL Hall of Fame. But there's far more than that. There's thief and attempted murderer Barret Robbins, there's Lawrence Taylor and Lawrence Phillips, drug dealers like Jamal Lewis and Terrence Kiel and Bam Morris, there's Brian Blades, Nate Newton and his pounds and pounds of pot…and of course, there's former ESPN analyst and newest NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, whose long litany of drug related offenses reach a new level of ridiculousness each year. And then we have the examples of self-destructive embarassment, like Plaxico Burress and Pac Man Jones…but enough has been said about them already (and remember, it's the NBA that's supposed to have "thug" problems).
But perhaps the best example of the double standard Michael Vick experienced is one Leonard Little, defensive end and sack machine for the St. Louis Rams. With a pattern of DUI offenses, the intoxicated Little plowed through a red light into an intersection and killed a middle-aged wife and mother. Little got 90 nights in jail (work-release), and 1,000 hours of community service. When he was picked up in 2004, speeding again and drunk out of his mind, Little could've been prosecuted for a felony. Instead, he just got more probation, and a brand new multi-million dollar contract. ESPN's coverage of Little was muted at the time, and his past crimes are rarely referenced if at all during broadcasts of Rams games. Dogfighting is round the clock - alcohol-fueled vehicular dual-manslaughter, let's just pretend it didn't happen.
Michael Vick, by action and inaction, did horrible and illegal things, yes. He has received the punishment for his crime. But his crime should not end his career simply because of the political pressure of a powerful lobby or the hot lights of round the clock sports coverage. Vick is still a competitor, and having served his sentence, he deserves the chance to compete and win a shot with another team in the future. That team - and I do believe there will be a team who eventually takes the shot - will likely have to endure protests from the animal rights lobby. But it shouldn't.
Let's be honest about what this all means for this young man. Ending the prospect of a possibility to play football again will, in all likelihood, take Vick down the sad path toward despair and self-destruction. Commissioner Goodell's choice on this matter hasn't just determined the future of an athlete, a commodity for his sport - it determines the future of a young man who has hoped for, worked for, and risked his body for one singular goal since he was just a kid, playing tag in the inner city streets, and dreamed of the gridiron and the bright lights of Monday night.
Whether Michael Vick ever reaches the big stage again or not, he should have the chance to sink or swim on his own abilities - not simply because some view his crime, unlike those perpetrated by the rest of his fellow players, as unforgiveable.
By Ben Domenech:
Reprinted with permission from The New Ledger