In the doghouse

It’s called the worst off-season in sports, and judging by the plethora of NFL jerseys I’ve seen around campus lately (99 per cent Minnesota Vikings), the students at U of M agree: The National Football League’s off-season is too long. By the time September finally does roll around, players are practically agonizing to get on the field and hit somebody, almost as badly as we the fans are to hit the recline button on our La-Z-boys, crack a silver bullet, and watch them.

For one player in particular, this past off-season was a little longer. It started back in January of 2007; and doesn’t begin again until this Sunday (week three of the ‘09 season). Out of football for the past two seasons, Michael Vick, the once untouchable star-quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, is fresh out of 16 long months in a federal prison. Vick called the past two years “the worst of his life” after Virginia police discovered his role in an underground dog-fighting network (you know the story). But this Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles (Vick’s new team) host the Kansas City Chiefs, the most athletically gifted quarterback to ever suit up in the NFL will get his first shot at on-field redemption.

Let’s forget for just a moment that back in April of ’07 Virginia police raided property belonging to Vick and found neglected dogs along with other disturbing evidence linking him to a vicious underground dog-fighting network, Bad Newz Kennels. Let’s forget (again, just for a second) that he lied through his teeth to Falcons owner and CEO Arthur Blank when the allegations first surfaced and Blank privately approached Vick. And lastly, let’s put aside the fact that this man’s life has recently been turned into a media circus, and let’s examine this from a football perspective. Because now that his time has been served and his dues paid, that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

In 2006 Vick was flying high as the only man in the NFL to have ever achieved over 1,000 yards rushing and passing in the same season, and some say this success went to his head. As the positional leader of his squad, Vick’s attitude reflected anything but that of a leader. Notorious for showing up late to practices, constantly missing coverage assignments, calling out the wrong play in the wrong situation, he was simply a guy not willing to put in the work to take his play to the next step. See, as threatening as the red No. 7 was to opposing defenses, Vick never really was that successful at passing the ball, especially inside the pocket. The NFC championship was as far as he could take the Falcons, and many sportswriters and pigskin analysts attribute this shortcoming to his lack of ability behind the offensive line, something Vick definitely could have improved on with tedious practicing. Of course, he was not interested in doing such.

But — and there certainly is a but — it appears that the new Michael Vick is a different man. First and foremost, his attitude has changed, at least in the public eye. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Vick himself acknowledged how lazy and undedicated he was to his teammates and the game of football in general before he was arrested. He admits he was a poor leader, a terrible example for people looking up to him, a terrible role model for kids, and someone not willing to consider the harm of his actions. He says when he was in jail all he could think of was how he hated himself, and most fans with a conscience did too. So should we give the guy another chance?

I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I think the answer is yes (FYI my summer job is at Petland; I’m not insensitive to animal cruelty). Vick has spent his time in jail. He has apologized publicly and privately to everyone he has hurt (minus the pit-bulls who were victims of his fights, of course), but all in all has done everything possible to try and right himself. He has even joined forces with the American Humane Society to spread awareness about animal cruelty and to teach kids about how to be a good pet owner. I know, I don’t want pet-tips from Michael Vick either, but the man is trying. Hard.

Look at it this way: although Vick’s actions were stupid, selfish and downright cruel, maybe this was the wakeup call he needed to truly harness his talent. I’m by no means saying that his dog-fighting activity was a positive thing, but if there’s a silver lining to every dark cloud, then this is it. Michael Vick now understands the fragility of being on top of the world, and how easily it can all slip away from you. He now understands the importance of hard work, commitment and why it is worth it to show up to practice every single day. From a fan’s perspective, we may now get to see what we thought we never would see: Vick at full potential.

Before jail, Michael Vick was just another cocky, know-it-all athlete with unquestionable talent, but unwilling to get better. Two and a half years later the situation has reversed. Michael Vick has emerged as a modest, hard-working man ready to do anything to get the taste of success back, but after 16 months in prison, can he still play? By the time you’ve read this, week three will have passed. So you tell me, can he?