It was a ho-hum headline on the latest lockout Groundhog Day: "Vick hosts informal practice with a few receivers." If you're not an Eagles fan, there's a pretty good chance you skimmed right past it. Nothing too crazy or weird. Just a quarterback rounding up his receivers for a workout since they're not allowed to practice at the team facility or with their coaches. It's happening all over the league.
But how insane would that headline have looked one year ago? Completely, right? A year ago, Vick was an Eagles roster afterthought -- a backup to Kevin Kolb, who was enjoying the spotlight as the anointed successor to Donovan McNabb. No one outside of Andy Reid could figure out what Vick was still doing on the team. The best thing anybody could say about him was that he'd kept himself out of trouble and been a good teammate and solid citizen in the year since he'd gotten out of prison.
Now, he's the team's unquestioned leader. The runner-up in a fan vote for the "Madden NFL 12" cover. The likely first pick in every 2011 fantasy draft. One of the most significant, interesting and popular players in the entire league. Next month he'll be a graduation speaker at a school for troubled kids. One of the folks he beat out for that honor is the mayor of Philadelphia.
"We think that Michael Vick will have the most impact on our students," Todd Bock, the school's president, explained to philly.com. And the amazing thing is that he's almost certainly right.
Even in an age in which public perception shifts with the slightest breeze, Vick's transformation is remarkable. He hasn't just kept himself out of trouble. He hasn't just returned to the level he occupied before his dogfighting crimes sent him to prison. He's exceeded that level, along with every expectation he, Reid, Tony Dungy, Roger Goodell or the criminal justice system could reasonably have had for him.
There will, of course, be people who cannot and will not forgive Vick for what he did. Those people are within their rights to hate him and to withhold their forgiveness. Vick's crimes are inconceivable, and nothing he does for the rest of his life can undo them. But unless we can outfit Vick with a time machine and better judgment, undoing his crimes is not an option. The options, as of two years ago when he got out of jail, were to (A) freeze him out of society and the NFL all together or (B) figure out a way he could re-enter both, flourish and do some good.
Some will still say the first option was the right one, but most criminal justice scholars would tell you that's the best way to make sure a guy commits another crime. The second option was the one Goodell and Andy Reid chose, and look at what's happened since they did.
Even before he was a starter and a star again, Vick was doing what he'd promised to do. He was staying away from trouble. He was giving passionate, heartfelt speeches condemning dogfighting and expressing regret for what he did. He was reaching kids, in many cases, who were more likely to listen to someone like him than they were even to their parents or teachers on the same kinds of topics. Had it stopped there -- had Kolb never gotten hurt and Vick never gotten the chance to get back on the field in a prominent role -- it would have been a decent redemption story.
What it has become instead is an all-time redemption story. This Michael Vick -- the one coming off his dazzling, MVP-candidate season -- is in a far better position than was the Michael Vick of a year ago to impact society in a positive way. He's now a bona fide superstar who personifies hope for a kid who might be watching from his or her own personal rock bottom. The lesson of Vick is that if you've done something wrong and regret it, your life doesn't have to end there. Your mistakes not only don't have to define you, but as long as you embrace them and behave toward them in the appropriate way, they don't even have to limit you.
Ideally, remember, this is what the criminal justice system is supposed to do -- rehabilitate, not condemn. Rehabilitation stories feel so rare that we often forget this. So a rehabilitation story like Michael Vick's, outsized as it may be, has great value as a reminder. Surely, the vast majority of convicted criminals who've done their time can't expect to become star NFL quarterbacks. But if Vick can get to where he is now from where he was two years ago, a lot of other things should feel a lot more attainable to a lot of other people along the criminal justice spectrum.
I was in Goodell's office in September 2009 when he was talking about letting Vick back into the league. On that day, Goodell said he wasn't as interested in punishment as he was in creating "success stories." Based on what's become of Vick since Goodell spoke those words, it appears as if he's got himself a whopper.