Op-ed submission by Project 21
Stories of redemption are common. Drug addicts kick their habits to rejoin civil society; corrupt investors become charitable. But rarely is there a story of someone overcoming their demons in which people not only want to watch, but want to cheer. Michael Vick’s path to redemption could be such an occasion.
From becoming the first black number-one overall quarterback pick in NFL draft history to starting for the Atlanta Falcons, Vick then descended to national pariah after being sentenced to 23 months in jail in 2007 for his role in a dogfighting operation involving illegal gambling and Vick’s participation in the cruel deaths of underperforming dogs.
Bad-boy sports stars are nothing new, but golfer Tiger Woods had a sport that wanted, even demanded, him back. Vick, however, topped the Forbes magazine list of most-hated sports figures in both 2009 and 2010. He emerged from jail in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings. When Vick was reinstated, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell warned that his “margin of error is extremely limited.” Few wanted Vick. New York Giants CEO John Mara said his team had no interest in Vick “on a lot of levels.” Animal rights activists threatened to picket games. Owners had to worry about fan desertion and plummeting attendance.
The Philadelphia Eagles taking a chance on Vick brought immense scrutiny. Will he be able to play at the same level? Will he return to play at all? Has he matured? Under any circumstances, Vick’s performance this past season with the Eagles would be another notch in the belt of a great quarterback. Under his circumstances, Vick’s performance was exceptional. Vick the football star returned, evolving into something few would have thought possible when he left prison. Vick changed, from the way he passed in the pocket, to the way he escaped tackles. Vick was a key factor in the Eagles making it to the playoffs.
More important than Vick’s maturation as a quarterback, however, was his maturation as a man. No one condones what Vick did off the field. But that lesson appears to have been learned. There’s nothing like going from the penthouse to the jailhouse to the bankruptcy courthouse to teach it. Vick seems humbled, more mature and more aware of those with whom he keeps company. For most, that lesson comes easily. It was different for the young man from the projects of Newport News.
The Bible says that as a child becomes a man he puts away childish things. Sometimes, those things instead become best friends. It’s a painful thing Vick experienced, but his post-prison behavior seems to indicate he’s learned. Too many black men, all men really, leave prison with what they came in with: nothing. They have no job, no support system, and little to return to except a life of crime. This returns too many to prison, continuing a cycle of shattered lives and broken communities.
Vick now talks to kids, kids growing up like he did, about the mistakes he made. Carolyn Kilborn of Maryland Votes for Animals thinks Vick’s work is valuable, telling the Baltimore Sun: “Kids… are more likely to listen to someone like Michael Vick. He can do a lot of good for troubled kids… He has the power to make a change in kids’ hearts like few other people can.”
If nothing else is taken from Vick’s story, let it be the example of the success of a man determined not to be another recidivist. Let it be of a man determined to show that there’s more to a man than the “felon” label — there’s also “role model” and “advocate.” In our society, those titles carry a lot more weight than the ones Vick could ever earn on the gridiron.
Each year, there is an award given to the NFL player who improves the most from one season to the next. It’s called the “Comeback Player of the Year” award. Under any circumstances, Michael Vick’s statistics alone would merit his consideration for the award. Under his circumstances, there’s no reason he shouldn’t get it.
Coby W. Dillard is a member of the Project 21 black leadership network and a founder of the Hampton Roads Tea Party in southeastern Virginia.