The Long Road Back

By George E. Curry
Updated: November 26, 2010

NEW YORK — Michael Vick has been sensational on the football field this season as quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Two weeks ago, he put on a phenomenal show against the Washington Redskins, setting a single-game record by throwing for 333 yards, including four touchdowns, and rushing for 80 yards and two more touchdowns.

The visiting Eagles routed the Redskins 59-28. NFL analyst and former Eagle Quarterback Ron Jaworski called it “The most remarkable performance I’ve ever seen on Monday night.”

However, the most remarkable part of the rise, fall and second rise of Vick is what happened off the field.

The Atlanta Falcons selected Vick as their top pick in 2001, the first black quarterback to be the No. 1 overall pick in an NFL draft.

Vick signed the largest contract ever for a rookie, $82 million for six years.

The nadir came in 2007 when he pleaded guilty to dog fighting-related charges. Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison and served 18 months at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., followed by five months of home confinement in Virginia.

In 2008, he filed for bankruptcy.

Rather than throwing Vick to the dogs, former Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy reached out to the gifted, but troubled, athlete, visiting him in prison, counseling him after his release and advocating on his behalf with NFL brass.

When the NFL agreed to allow Vick to return to pro football under a strict set of guidelines, Dungy was there to help guide him, keeping his spirits up while he was ridiculed and hounded by animal rights activists.

Some critics have suggested that justice for Vick would be his dying and coming back as a fire hydrant. Last year, the Eagles signed Vick to a $1.6 million contract, with a $5 million option for 2010, which it exercised.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a statement saying, “PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen to sign a man who hanged dogs from trees, electrocuted them with jumper cables, held them underwater until they drowned in his swimming pool and even threw his own family dog into the fighting pit to be torn to shreds while he laughed. What sort of message does this send to young fans who care about animals and don’t want to see them harmed?”

Fortunately, the Humane Society of the U.S. took a more humane approach toward Vick after his advisers approached the group about the fallen athlete’s embarking on a speaking tour to discourage urban youth from engaging in dog fighting.

So far, Vick has spoken to more than a dozen groups around the country about his bad behavior. By all accounts, Vick became a changed player in Philadelphia. In Atlanta, he had been accused of being the last player in the locker room and the first to exit.

Under then Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb’s tutelage, Vick became more of a student of the game, spending more time studying film and learning to remain in the pocket instead of eyeing the nearest lane to run.

In a surprise move, the Eagles traded McNabb to the Washington Redskins, a division rival, prior to the start of this season.

Eagles Coach Andy Reid declared young Kelvin Kolb as his quarterback of the future.

But when Kolb was sidelined with an injury in the opening game, Vick was given the opportunity to display his upgraded talent; the quarterback of the future quickly became the quarterback of the past.

Vick played so well that Reid, who had said Kolb wouldn’t lose his starting job because of an injury, had to reverse himself and anoint Vick as his quarterback. Vick was sidelined for three games with a rib injury but returned to his starting role.

He has won every game he started this year, and there is even talk of him being selected as the league’s MVP. Sunday night, Vick led his team to a 27-17 victory over the New York Giants, placing the Eagles atop the NFC East for the first time this season.

It was a game marred by dropped touchdown passes, mindless penalties and two fumbles by Vick, who had not fumbled or thrown an interception all year.

“This was an important game for him,” his coach said after the game. “It’s very important to battle through when a team is coming after you, bringing extra people, you’re getting hit and knocked around, and things might not be going as smoothly as you want. You have to fight and that’s what he did.”

Vick has fought his way back to the top.