Son of a teenage mother and child of a crime-ridden housing project, Michael Vick grew up clutching football as his way out. It was his escape hatch, his passage to a better life-or at least a more comfortable one. But in the wake of a felony conviction and 21-month prison term for his role in a savage dog-fighting ring, Vick's grip on the sport that would save him has loosened. The Philadelphia quarterback cares less now about football than ever before. And paradoxically, he has never played better.
Vick has surprised sports prognosticators, fans, and even his own coaches and teammates with his emergence as a Pro Bowl--caliber passer this season. He is among the favorites to claim the league's MVP award at season's end. His performance in a 59-28 blowout of the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football on Nov. 15 drew praise as one of the best single-game spectacles for any player in NFL history.
So what to make of this extraordinary resurgence? Football minds point out that no one ever doubted Vick's talent. With lightning-quick feet and a rocket arm, he led the Virginia Tech Hokies to a national title game as a redshirt freshman in 1999. Two years later, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. But that promise failed to translate to the professional game at the level many had predicted. Vick was a good NFL quarterback, but not a great one.
Observers lamented that such rare athletic gifts might never reach full utilization for a player more given to puffing his chest than pushing himself. Vick was lazy, leaning into his exceptional physical abilities to produce good enough, rather than pressing to grow his mental understanding of defensive schemes and the quarterback position.
For Vick, football was providing all he wanted-a new flashy lifestyle, a new home for his once impoverished mother, a new identity rooted in power and acclaim. It was for these things that Vick valued the game, for these things that he still clutched football as a savior.
And then that savior and many of its attending blessings were suddenly removed in 2007. Vick's involvement in illegal dog-fighting did more than bar him from playing football; it sullied his public image, plucked away his freedom, and emptied his bank accounts. More than that, it left him searching for a new God.
Vick's public apology included this note: "I'm upset with myself and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked Him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. I think that's the right thing to do as of right now."
That statement met considerable criticism at the time, none harsher than from black conservative radio host Jesse Lee Peterson: "The statement that Michael Vick has found Jesus is laughable. Like other celebrities before him, Vick is evoking Jesus' name to stop the criticism and gain public sympathy."
Three years later, it is Peterson's comment that's in question. With evangelical Christian and former NFL coach Tony Dungy at his side, Vick addressed a Campus Crusade for Christ audience earlier this year: "Pre-incarceration, it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn't do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God. . . . Five months ago I was worried with what was going to happen, but now I'm more at peace. God has taken it over. I don't have to worry about being dynamic. God is in control of that."
Freed from clutching sport as savior, Vick now plays the game out of a new identity-one rooted in humility. Football is no longer his way out but a public canvas to tell the story of a new man. And nothing is more dynamic than redemption.