There is no middle ground

This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

WAITING ALONE IN THE DARK, Michael Vick steps out from behind a concrete pillar and into the glaring light. He strides over cables and equipment toward an area lit by a single source, a projector flashing a collection of words and phrases onto the basement wall behind him. As he gets into position for The Magazine's photo shoot, each word -- Monstrous, Humble, Criminal, Gifted -- burns its way into the contours of his face and body. Even though the display is a blinding reminder of Vick's journey from NFL icon to prisoner and back again, the quarterback never flinches. Not even a few minutes later, when he glances off camera and sees his children staring up at a constellation of the world's wildly conflicting opinions of their father.

Noticing them, Vick twists around to finally scrutinize the words for himself. Cameras fall, and the room goes still and quiet as his eyes dart up and down and across the wall. Then he nods gently and turns back around to face the lens, this time leaning into the projections, ever so slightly, as if to own them, all of them, once and for all.

"It's perfect, those words are my life, the whole thing," he says after. "It's gonna be interesting to watch people pick this up and point to the different words and say: 'I believe that, I don't believe that; that's how I feel, that's how you feel; that's what I like, that's what I don't like.' It's all me."

Whether they settle on the word Hero or Monster -- or both -- the one thing most people can agree on is that it's almost impossible to look away from Vick. As the quarterback of the Super Bowl favorite heading into the 2011 season, Vick has pulled off what no other athlete, save for Muhammad Ali, has been able to accomplish: to return bigger and better than ever after a disastrous tumble from grace. He's a singular talent with a singular story, which is why, for the first time in The Mag's history, we're devoting an issue to one man: him.

If you want to understand the current state of the NFL, warts and everything, all you need to do is study Vick. He's not a prepackaged, market-tested cliche. He's real and raw and flawed, and, like the rest of us, probably not as bad as you imagine, or as good. In that sense, the visor Vick wears inside his helmet acts like a mirror: When we glare at him for answers and insight, what we mostly get back is a reflection of ourselves. Some see his comeback as a story of humbled redemption. Others see him far more darkly: as a criminal who got what he deserved, a pathetic waste of talent and time, just another athlete derailed by a sense of entitlement.

The truth lies somewhere in between. And this is what makes Vick so captivating -- the way he straddles the fault lines of our culture.

Sports? Vick is revolutionizing the marquee position in football, even as many in the league refuse to allow quarterbacks to follow his lead. Prison? Vick has been locked in a cell and invited to speak to Congress. Money? He's signed a $130 million contract and earned 12 cents an hour mopping floors. Violence? His dogfighting crimes have tested the human bounds of forgiveness while exposing our shared hypocrisy toward animal cruelty. Race? At a memorabilia signing in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend, Vick was posing for a picture with a white baby when a black man leaned through the crowd and, his voice trembling with emotion, yelled: "That's a real n-- right there! We love you, Mike Vick!"

The most compelling thing about Vick, though, is his unwillingness to play a role for us, to shave down his sharp edges for easy consumption. In one breath, he offers a feel-good tale about second chances: "If I could go back and change my life, I would not change going to prison. I was never gonna change. I was never gonna stop what I was doing or acting the way that I was acting. In prison, that's where I became a leader." In the next breath, he is defiant: "There may still be masses of people who continue to say what I'm doing is phony or fictitious, but they should focus on something more productive and positive. I dismissed those people the first day I got out of prison. Just don't put it in my face. Because I will take the initiative to put it back in your face."

To make sense of all these contradictions and conflicts, we shadowed Vick this summer as he crisscrossed the country for a series of camps, clinics and appearances. In June, he found himself double-booked as the commencement speaker for the Camelot alternative high schools in Philadelphia and as the main fund-raising draw for a Pee Wee football league in Lynchburg, Va. Vick hates to fly, but he had to charter a plane to make both events. After an effortless takeoff, the plane soared, peacefully, through bright blue skies for almost 40 minutes. As it did, Vick rolled through tales of his childhood in Newport News, Va., his unraveling in Atlanta, the tears he shed in prison and his rebirth as a quarterback.

Then the tiny prop plane rattled as it entered a set of dark purple clouds. Vick grew quiet, glancing out the window until the ground finally appeared below. It wasn't just the bumpy air that inspired his silence but the realization that, once again, he'd be coming back down to earth, where, two years after leaving prison, angry protestors still greet him wherever he lands.

A moment later, the entire plane shook, violently, as the landing gear locked into place and the nose of the plane tipped forward. Vick turned away from the window, pushed himself back into his chair and gripped the end of each armrest. Squeezing so hard that it wrinkled the light brown leather, Vick braced himself, not sure whether he was flying or falling.