When star athletes have nothing, that's when we find out something. It's not moments of glory that define them, but moments of disappointment.
Pete Rose went from outright denying he gambled on baseball, to admitting it when his book hit the market, to recently tearfully apologizing for his behavior during the 25th anniversary ceremony of his record-setting 4,192nd hit. Only now, after all these years, is it apparent that far worse than the public scorn was Rose having to live with the emotional burden of having let down his teammates.
Shame can be telling. Today, there will be lots of people praising Michael Vick because Philadelphia coach Andy Reid announced on Tuesday that Vick will be his starting quarterback. This is a momentous reversal, since the Eagles traded franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins during the offseason to pave the way for Kevin Kolb, who now is Vick's understudy.
Some think Reid's making Vick the starter is the official culmination of Vick's comeback, but that would be severely discounting what Vick has done since losing everything and serving 18 months in federal prison for his role in an illegal dogfighting ring.
But it's not regaining a starting quarterback position in the NFL or his apparent growth as a pocket passer that stamps Vick's complete comeback.
Winning the starting job is just a result. The real victory was how Vick dealt with the shame of losing untold millions, his freedom and his reputation.
"One of the great things about America is you're given a second chance, if you handle it the proper way," Reid said in a press conference Tuesday evening. "He's handled it the proper way. His teammates would all stand up for him, for what he's tried to do and how he's changed his life around. I sit here and do the same."
Vick has been a gifted athlete since he could breathe. He was dazzling at Virginia Tech, and he later became the No. 1 pick and the face of the NFL. But he cut plenty of corners, and not just when he decided to involve himself in an illegal enterprise.
Great athletes often are the worst at taking their own greatness for granted, and Vick is no exception. He was perhaps more unfair to himself than he ever was to the fans who unconditionally supported him Atlanta. It was extremely telling that in his first interview after being released from prison, he told "60 Minutes," "I was lazy. You know, I was the last guy in the building, first guy out. I know that. You know, I hear everything that people say. And that hurt me when I heard that, but I know it was true."
Shame can be a humbling teacher. This isn't to say that prison was good for Vick, but had he never undergone such a humiliating fall, it's fair to wonder if he would have ever respected his own talents the way he seems to at this moment.
Vick has a 105.5 passer rating, three touchdowns to zero interceptions, and has grown exponentially as a pocket passer. Before, you would wonder if he ever looked at film. Now, he seems a step ahead of defenders.
The same Vick who admitted that during the height of his popularity he was "lazy" fought his way into shape for this season after coming to the Eagles 20 pounds overweight last year.
The same Vick who said he thought he could escape consequences as easily as would-be tacklers has admitted he deserved the punishment and backlash he received. He also admitted he put himself in a "vulnerable sitaution" in June by holding a public birthday party, after which Quanis Phillips, a co-defendant in the case that landed Vick in prison, was shot.
"I deserve to lose the $130 million and, you know, on the flip side, you know, killing dogs or doing the wrong things, why ... [wouldn't people say] he don't deserve it," Vick told "60 Minutes."
And the same Vick who once made an obscene gesture toward Atlanta fans as he was leaving the field stuck up for Kolb after Vick threw two touchdown passes in a 35-32 win over the Lions on Sunday -- even though it's clear now that Vick's performance against Detroit cast quite a bit of doubt in Reid's mind about who should be the starter.
"It's totally OK [that Kolb is the starter]." Vick told ESPN anchor Hannah Storm following that victory. "Kevin's our leader. Kevin has worked very hard throughout the offseason. I know how good he is and what he can do. He'll have success."
Vick hasn't always been a good person and, sometimes, not a good player. But the classy way Vick sought his redemption has created this burgeoning opportunity with the Eagles.
No matter how this season plays out, Vick will win, even if that's not represented in the Eagles' record. Vick has shown he can be a starter in this league, but most importantly, he has proved that sometimes when you lose everything, you gain some things that are far more valuable.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.