"I stand before you a changed man," Michael Vick tells an auditorium packed with kids whose parents would very much like to see them change, too. "Use me as an example of an instrument of change."
It's early June, and Vick is at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, addressing the graduates of the Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania. These students are primarily from low-income African-American families, and most wound up here after being kicked out of other schools. Vick has stumbled through parts of his speech but nails this bit. It's his second-biggest applause line—after an eleven-way tie between each time he says the word Eagles.
The students want him there; he won a popular vote. Their options were Vick, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, and school-district superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The Camelot Schools claim the vote was "close." I do not believe them. When Vick was selected and accepted the honor, Milton Alexander, Camelot's vice president of operations, waved off any potential criticism by saying, "One thing that we are constantly addressing with our students is if you make a mistake, if you make a bad decision, there is accountability involved, and just because this is your reality now, it doesn't have to be your reality forever. Vick's story is very relevant to their situation."
It's a scene that many couldn't have imagined last year at this time, when Michael Vick was out of prison but oddly irrelevant—neutered, almost. The man who'd not long before been the most controversial athlete on earth seemed forgotten and ignored, even by his own team. Vick had successfully navigated his way back to football after his infamous dogfighting scandal, but his problem was no longer picketing protesters or angry television commentators. It was the Eagles' depth chart. He—Michael Vick!—was a third-stringer behind aging Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, both considered NFL starters in their own right. There probably wasn't a professional quarterback farther from glory in all of football. And nobody knew it more than Vick.
"I think I can say this now, because it's not going to hurt anybody's feelings, and it's the truth," Vick tells me a few weeks after the commencement ceremony. "I didn't want to come to Philadelphia. Being the third-team quarterback is nothing to smile about. Cincinnati and Buffalo were better options." Those two teams wanted him and would've allowed him to start, but after meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell and other reps from the NFL, Vick was convinced—and granted league approval—to sign with Philly. "And I commend and thank them, because they put me in the right situation."
That they did. After attempting only thirteen passes in 2009, his first season back, Vick moved up to second string when the Eagles traded McNabb to the Washington Redskins. But when Kolb suffered a concussion in the season opener, Vick took the reins and was a revelation—leading the Eagles to an 8-3 record in games he started, throwing for twenty-one touchdowns while running for nine, and steering Philadelphia to an NFC East division title during a year in which they were supposed to be rebuilding.
This Michael Vick was not the Vick of old; this Michael Vick was a supercharged, utopian version of the player who'd quarterbacked the Atlanta Falcons through six frustrating seasons before his forced exile from football. The old Vick had been plagued by indecision, by a lack of work ethic ("I had none sometimes," he admits), by on-field impatience, by off- field distractions that were so numerous they almost turned football into a distraction, and by the unbearable weight of being Michael Vick, Preternatural Talent. In Atlanta, Vick flipped off fans, was suspected of bringing weed to the airport, and once used the fake name "Ron Mexico" with doctors to hide that he was receiving treatment for herpes. (This was not an effective strategy.)
In Philadelphia, coaches praised the New Vick as a diligent worker and perfect teammate, a quiet leader deserving of the team's Ed Block Courage Award for "exemplifying commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage." His crowning moment—one of the most astonishing performances in the history of the NFL—was on Monday Night Football in mid-November. Vick accounted for five first-half touchdowns (three through the air, two on the ground) against the Redskins and generally made everyone else on the field look like cats darting after a laser pointer. "I was a little out of my mind there," he says. "Everything was just coming perfect."
Before Vick takes the stage to address the Camelot graduates, he meets with several teachers, nearly all of whom are extremely large and joke about applying to be one of his offensive linemen. Vick then fields questions from a handful of students in the greenroom. After a few softballs ("Are the Eagles going to win the Super Bowl next year?"), one student, taller than Vick and about twice as wide, gets right to the point: "Are you mad about what happened to you?"
Fifteen feet away, halfheartedly taking notes alongside a cluster of reporters, I snap to attention. What a strange question. Certainly to many, framing the past four years of Michael Vick's life in terms of something that happened to him suggests a gross misunderstanding of how he wound up behind bars. But this is not the way the Camelot students see it at all. The kid's question is met with head nods and shouts of "You better believe it!" and "That's right!"
Vick, who has barely changed his expression throughout the thirty-minute session with the students, smiles wide and looks over his left shoulder, directly toward the hallway of reporters. He glances left and right, cartoonishly grinning, all mock-conspiratorial. "Where the media at?" he says, and everyone laughs.
Since his release from prison in July 2009, Michael Vick has had a team of "at least seven" PR professionals working for him. He says they laid down a plan while he was still locked up, a plan "I try to follow to the letter." They have him working with the Humane Society, with whom he recently came out against an Android app called Dog Wars. ("It just sends the wrong message," he said in a press release.) Most recently, he appeared on Capitol Hill to back an anti-dogfighting bill: "During my time in prison, I told myself that I wanted to be a part of the solution and not the problem." He's made public appearances with beloved NFL figure Tony Dungy, who counseled Vick while in prison (but declined my repeated requests for an interview). Last year he produced The Michael Vick Project, a ten-part miniseries on BET meant to humanize himself. "These guys have been working for me for years now, trying to get my stuff back on track, and it has worked out great," Vick says. "Everybody works on one chord and understands that every decision is critical and has to be made collectively. I think [the success] is a credit to myself making sure that I have the right people around me."
In the Camelot commencement program, Vick's story is described as "rags to riches to rags to redemption." This is the company line, and Vick knows to ride it close. At the end of last season, Vick won the Associated Press's NFL Comeback Player of the Year award and played in his first Pro Bowl since 2005. The plan is working. Which is why Nike, the sponsor that did as much as anyone else to build the Michael Vick brand in the first place, re-signed Vick in early July to endorse the athletic garb it designed specifically for him. (Vick says Nike never lost touch with him, even while he was in prison.) This is quite the turnaround: When the investigation into Vick's dogfighting activities was in its early stages, Nike's suspension of a highly anticipated Vick shoe was the point at which many realized the scandal wasn't going to blow over. Now Nike's back on board, fully subscribed to a metanarrative that goes something like this:
Michael Vick was undisciplined, young, and too loyal to (and trusting of) the people he grew up with. He made mistakes, including but not limited to dogfighting, and eventually his malfeasances were uncovered. He realized the error of his ways and accepted his punishment. While in prison, he "got his mind right," discovered the perspective that eluded him as a free man, and vowed never to repeat the mistakes of his past. He took advantage of his second chance, becoming the quarterback he was always meant to be. His story is an inspiration to all. Particularly to those desiring the finest in athletic gear.
I'm not sure if it will strike you as a relief or an outrage that Michael Vick doesn't really believe all of this, but you should know: He doesn't.
As recently as last June, Vick was still terrified his NFL comeback could be derailed. Most of his anxiety likely stemmed from an incident at his thirtieth-birthday party. If you don't know the story, it's a wacky one: We came awfully close to missing out on this era of Vick's career because of pastry. In the heart of the 2010 off-season, when Vick was still riding the bench, his fiancée, Kijafa, in front of hundreds of partygoers at a restaurant in Virginia Beach, playfully rubbed cake in Vick's face, which he did not enjoy. Then Quanis Phillips, one of Vick's dogfighting co-defendants, rubbed more cake in Vick's face, which he enjoyed even less. They had a big public fight, and Vick, wary of getting in trouble again, left the party. Fifteen minutes later, Vick received a call and learned Phillips had been shot in the leg. (The shooter's identity remains a mystery, and charges were never filed.)
Vick was ultimately found faultless in the incident, but it scared him even more straight than he already was. For a long time thereafter, he played the humble, stoic good citizen. You will recognize this Vick from all those court appearances during the dogfighting trial—head down, chastened, all traces of his famously brash and arrogant personality smothered. Every facial expression came with an implied thought bubble: I am a remorseful man.
Suffce it to say, Michael Vick no longer looks sorry. That Vick swagger, the charisma that once made the famously individual-averse NFL promote him as if he were Michael Jordan (remember "The Michael Vick Experience" commercials?)—that Vick is back. It's this version of Vick that I encounter during a three-hour photo shoot, a few weeks after the commencement speech. I'd been so used to Vick looking forlorn during public appearances over the past three years that I didn't anticipate how bold he'd be in person. Many athletes are reluctant to take their shirts off for photographers, which has always struck me as odd. (If I looked like an athlete, I'd take my shirt off to go to the gas station.) But Vick is shirtless before the photographer even asks.
When Vick went to prison, the general consensus was that he would never be the same quarterback again. Here was a guy who'd nearly led Virginia Tech to a national championship and finished third in the Heisman voting as a freshman; who'd been the number one pick in the 2001 NFL draft at the age of 20; and whose first professional coach, Dan Reeves, had said Vick's talent "made you scratch your head and wonder what you just saw."
And yet he'd never lived up to his potential when he had every opportunity to succeed. How in the world would he train himself back to a workable level (let alone MVP caliber) while atrophying in prison for eighteen months? But damned if he didn't actually seem faster once he was out. How could prison—where he claims to have played a pickup game only once—have made him a better quarterback?
He says it didn't. He says he's just always been this good. "I have always been an outstanding football player, I have always had uncanny abilities, great arm strength, an immense ability to play the game from a quarterback standpoint," Vick says. "The problem was that I wasn't given the liberty to do certain things when I was young. The reason I became a better player was because I came to Philly."
So then it wasn't a change of mind-set in prison, as is so often claimed as a cornerstone of the Vick story? "No," he says. "I had changed my life long before then. I was just with the wrong team at the wrong time."
The way Vick tells it, he struggled in Atlanta not because of maturity issues but because the revolving door of coaches there kept trying to turn him into a player he was not. They were trying to make him a more conventional quarterback, a pocket passer, one who followed The System rather than His Instincts. In other words: Vick struggled at the end of his tenure in Atlanta not because his life was out of control but because they wouldn't Let Me Be Me.
When Falcons coach Bobby Petrino was brought aboard specifically to take advantage of Vick's talents, "his offense was designed to make me the quarterback that I wanted to be," Vick says. He adds that he had stopped going to so many parties and "buying so much jewelry" and was working mostly on a horse farm he'd built. "I was turning the corner. I was cutting my braids off. I was changing my life. I wanted to live the life where football and family were the only things that mattered. I was ready to do it. I felt like time was running out on my career. I needed focus."
And then he got caught doing some very bad things to dogs.
I ask Vick: If you'd never gone to prison, if no one had ever known that you'd been involved with dogfighting...would you still be an All-Pro today?
He smiles. "Only if I had gotten traded to the Philadelphia Eagles," he says. "They never tried to change me."
It doesn't matter how long ago it went down or how far back Vick has climbed: The dogfighting crimes for which he served 544 days—and he knows the exact number off the top of his head—will be in the first sentence of his obituary no matter how many Super Bowls he wins.
Not that Vick and his PR army haven't been trying to push the dogfighting down as many paragraphs as possible. Vick seems to think the only people who still care are reporters. "They are writing as if everyone feels that way and has the same opinions they do. But when I go out in public, it's all positive, so that's obviously not true." The media, Vick implies, still act as though he used to sneak into suburban yards, steal golden retrievers, and set them on fire. As if he were a lone actor, a single rampaging menace, a canine serial killer with no context, motivation, or backstory. As if he is the only person in America associated with dogfighting.
He isn't, of course. While nonprofit groups like the Humane Society attribute a decrease in dogfighting popularity over the past five years to the visibility of the Vick case, organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals contend that crackdowns on cases like Vick's have actually made dogfighting more popular. Either way, it is still estimated that tens of thousands engage in dogfighting—which is notoriously more prevalent in urban areas, where it has been part of African-American culture for decades.
Vick, well versed in his talking points on this matter, hesitates to make this a race issue. And yet: "Yeah, you got the family dog and the white picket fence, and you just think that's all there is. Some of us had to grow up in poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods, and we just had to adapt to our environment. I know that it's wrong. But people act like it's some crazy thing they never heard of. They don't know."
I ask Vick if he feels that white people simply don't understand that aspect of black culture. "I think that's accurate," he says. "I mean, I was just one of the ones who got exposed, and because of the position I was in, where I was in my life, it went mainstream. A lot of people got out of it after my situation, not because I went to prison but because it was sad for them to see me go through something that was so pointless, that could have been avoided."
A refresher on the details of the incident that officially put Vick away: In April 2007, the other three men involved in Bad Newz Kennels, which Vick bankrolled, were "going through fighting sessions to determine which animals were good fighters," according to Vick's indictment. Vick, who had been taking great pains not to be seen at the kennels, "helped out" in the killing of seven dogs—the ones who had lost in the fighting sessions. He then assisted in burying the dogs, too. A week later, police raided the compound. Vick said at the time, "I'm never at the house.... I left the house with my family members and my cousin.... They just haven't been doing the right thing.... It's unfortunate I have to take the heat behind it. If I'm not there, I don't know what's going on." He tells me today: "I was walking away, just totally refocused on something else.... I just happened to get caught out in the yard trying to help out."
A quiet few have made the argument that Vick's punishment and banishment and ostracism from society was excessive. Vick ultimately served more time than the other owners of the Bad Newz Kennels and was given a harsher sentence than almost anyone else ever convicted of dogfighting. He was put in prison for a sadly common crime, something that thousands of people who grew up under his circumstances witness firsthand or even partake in every day. He was, arguably, just staying true to where he'd come from, among the very few people in Newport News, Virginia, he'd known forever—men he could trust, men who were not among the Johnny-come-lately sharks, men who understood. For this, he lost the prime of his career. He's coming into his own at 31, when there is very little time left.
I ask him if he buys this argument, if he believes he was treated unfairly. Most people convicted of dogfighting don't spend a year and a half in prison. They aren't forced to declare bankruptcy. I ask him if he was sent to prison for too long.
"One day in prison is too long," he says.
Yes, but I mean for this particular crime.
He sighs. I'm not the first person who's tried to lead him down this road. "For a while, it was all 'Scold Mike Vick, scold Mike Vick, just talk bad about him, like he's not a person,' " he says. "It's almost as if everyone wanted to hate me. But what have I done to anybody? It was something that happened, and it was people trying to make some money." He pauses and looks around. Time to step back from the edge. He's recovered so much ground that he's not about to lose it all again by taking things too far with some writer he just met. "But it's not fair. It's not fair to the animal. I know what to do now. I am strong as an individual, and I can handle anything."
It's damned good to be Michael Vick right now. In fact, you might say things couldn't get better. He's poised to potentially lead the Eagles to their first ever Super Bowl win. His jersey is one of the NFL's best-selling again. He's playing football at a level that few men have ever dreamed of. He's got his city, his fans, his sponsors; everyone's back on board. But there's one thing that's still bothering him:
"I miss dogs, man," he says. "I always had a family pet, always had a dog growing up. It was almost equivalent to the prison sentence, having something taken away from me for three years. I want a dog just for the sake of my kids, but also me. I miss my companions." Assuming he doesn't suddenly start another dogfighting ring, Vick is due to come off probation in July 2012. Afterward, he is expected to be able to legally own a dog.
Obviously, if he insists on it, there will be problems. Can you imagine the outcry from the Nancy Grace crowd? PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk—who likens Vick to "a psychopath"—lays it out pretty clearly: "I don't want him within half a football field of an animal. It's the only way that we could make sure that the animals are safe."
But Vick won't be worried about people like Newkirk if he keeps winning football games. The past twelve months have proved that. Like many athletes, Vick has used his extraordinary play as a tool to silence critics. "In the back of my mind, I just said, You know, I will prove all these people wrong. I will show them that I am bigger than everything that is going on right now."
This summer, in the relative calm of the lockout, Vick's average day involved getting up, working out, spending time with his family, and playing golf. He has settled into being Michael Vick again—successful, triumphant. He's going to think twice about putting that on the line. Which is why, when I speak to him on the phone a week after our first conversation, I'm not terribly surprised to find that he's back on message, parroting lines that remind me of the Camelot Schools commencement address. "Going to prison, I had a chance to clean a lot of things up," he says robotically. "I changed, people change, and you know, now it is like I have everything in order and my life is totally different, because I am able to deal with situations based on what is right and what is wrong." This is just days after he'd re-signed with Nike. I ask him his favorite website. "Nikeelite.com," he says.
Vick must constantly play this balancing act, reconciling a desire to say what he wants with what he knows he can't. In person, you can see these cracks in disposition; there's tension because part of him wants to open up. But over the phone, I can tell it's the fortified Vick. In order to stick to the PR plan, he must make himself as uninteresting as possible. It benefits Vick to be just like every other athlete again, full of braggadocio and bromides and advertisements for footwear and lime sports beverages. This is all Vick could have ever hoped for: to reclaim the normal, pampered, stupidly happy life of a professional athlete. And why shouldn't he? He served his time. We can be repulsed by his past, we can choose not to root for him, but we can't drown out the cheers from Eagles fans. In the $9 billion juggernaut of the NFL, Michael Vick's transgressions just don't matter anymore, and maybe they never did.
And yet there's certainly a desire to know how Michael Vick truly feels about what he's done, how he's been treated, and where he's going. But the rags-to-redemption hook was for your benefit; it has never mattered inside the lines. It sure doesn't matter to the defenders lying at Vick's feet as he scampers into the end zone. Or to Vick's teammates, who just want a Super Bowl ring. Or to any armchair owner who's picked up Vick for his fantasy-football team. And it probably matters least of all to those fans, the ones wearing his jersey and screaming his name. They just look at the scoreboard, and that's all the truth they need.