On November 15, on one of the biggest stages in professional sports, Michael Vick set the tone for a game that would make history.
From a jaw-dropping 88-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson in the opening drive, to what would be a record-breaking performance overall—333 yards thrown and four touchdowns in a 59-28 blowout against the Washington Redskins—it was Vick’s name that the sportscasters kept coming back to, with awe in their voices.
On that Monday night, Michael Vick, who three years ago was disgraced because of his ties to dogfighting, finally, officially, redeemed himself.
Not Lazy Anymore
This Thanksgiving weekend, the Chicago Bears will try to shut Vick down; no small feat as the top-rated quarterback, who pundits are already projecting to be this season’s MVP, has yet to be stopped.
Before his Monday Night miracle, Vick was already on his way to winning over both an apprehensive public and the disparaging media through his stunning on-field performance. He began the season as a backup to the less-experienced Kevin Kolb, but a concussion suffered by Kolb during week one opened the door for Vick’s triumphant return.
After two praiseworthy outings, Eagles head coach Andy Reid conceded to the inevitable and designated Vick the team’s official starting quarterback in Kolb’s stead. And despite being sidelined for a month with a rib injury sustained in the team’s first meeting with the Redskins, Vick, with bold runs and aggressive throws characteristic of his first years in the NFL, has astonished in every one of his games since.
“I’m very proud of him,” Reid said of Vick, who is currently the top-rated quarterback in the NFL. “It’s a true testament that if you work hard, you keep your nose clean, good things can happen.”
Vick has certainly worked hard, and kept his nose clean. After an 18-month prison term and a two-year suspension from the NFL for funding and participating in Bad Newz Kennels (a Virginia-based dogfighting ring in which dogs were routinely electrocuted, drowned, and hung for poor performance), he signed with the Eagles at the beginning of the 2009 season.
Facing an uphill battle as a surplus quarterback and the subject of public condemnation, Vick was a committed player from the outset, with a strong work ethic and a positive team attitude; a significant change from his pre-incarceration days as somewhat of a prima donna with the Atlanta Falcons, a “complacent” and “somewhat lazy” period that the quarterback, now granted a second chance, regrets.
As Andy Reid remarked, Vick’s newfound dedication to his role as a team leader, and his shifted focus away from outside distractions, has undoubtedly been a major factor in his success with the Eagles this season. Hard work pays off.
But for Reid, the sentiment runs deeper. The coach, whose sons have battled drug addiction and served prison time on an array of related charges, comprehends and appreciates the importance of second chances. A devout Mormon, he has remained committed to his sons’ recovery; experience that prepared him to be able to relate to and support Michael Vick. And not just as a coach, but as a mentor, as someone who is invested in personal, as well as professional, rehabilitation.
“One of the great things about America is you’re given a second chance, if you handle it the proper way,” Reid said in September when he assigned the starting position to Vick. “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.”
“Against all odds, one man escaped, and uplifted a family. But his humble beginnings led to a very tragic ending,” a dramatic voice narrates over sound bites and flashing images in the introduction to The Michael Vick Project. “But from darkness, he saw the light. Blessed with a second chance, he must once again rise above to heal his family, his community, his legacy.”
The ten-part BET documentary, executive-produced by Vick himself, relates the star’s infamous story through a series of testimonies, events (including a heartfelt speech Vick gave as part of his involvement with the Humane Society’s End Dogfighting campaign), and interviews with family and acquaintances. A contrived attempt at redeeming himself in the public eye, The Michael Vick Project seemed to serve little purpose other than to be a personal reminder to Vick of his own remorse, recovery, and renewed dedication to faith, family, and career.
While the show’s production and entertainment value may be lost on many, it works to situate Vick’s experience of contrition and rehabilitation within a theological narrative of redemption. “I’m Michael Vick,” the opening sequence to each episode concludes. “My fall from grace was tragic, but it was all my fault, and I’m on a mission to get everything back. Not the money and the fame, but to restore my family’s good name.”
Vick has recognized his errors, paid his debt, made a commitment to rebuilding his life, and, perhaps most importantly, taken advantage of his public “fall from grace” to share his testimony—to bear witness to the power of redemption and, eventually, forgiveness, not just from the public, but from God.
Just days after the February 2010 premiere of The Michael Vick Project, the quarterback delivered a public proclamation of his newfound faith in Jesus. Standing before a crowd of 1,100 at the annual Super Bowl Prayer Breakfast, sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ and its sports ministry, Athletes in Action, Vick told a familiar life-after-prison story:
“I wanted a chance to redeem myself. Pre-incarceration, it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God.” Vick, who became a Christian in high school, claimed increasing success on the football field and a self-centered attitude had distanced him from his faith, but the quarterback assured the audience he is “in the backseat now and God is in the front.” He continued, “Five months ago I was worried with what was going to happen, but now I’m more at peace. God has taken it over. I don’t have to worry about being dynamic. God is in control of that.”
Dungy has also offered a similar narrative of Vick’s spiritual transformation; one he still puts forth in interviews and commentaries, albeit in less theologically explicit terms. “He told me he had prayed to God to get to play in the NFL,” Dungy recounted. “He lost that focus when he got on top. Going to prison was the best thing that could’ve happened to him, because he regained that focus.”
The Super Bowl breakfast wasn’t the first time Vick has invoked God since pleading guilty to his role in the operation of Bad Newz Kennels. After claiming “full responsibility” for his actions in a pre-sentencing public apology in 2007, he said, “I’m upset with myself and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. I think that’s the right thing to do as of right now.”
The statement was met with significant skepticism, even antagonism, from other Christians. Conservative radio talk show host Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson deemed it laughable, a ploy to gain sympathy, and called on “true believers” to recognize the hypocrisy. “We can no longer allow celebrities and politicians to break laws and then use ‘Jesus’ as a get-out-of-jail free card,” he argued.
And Vick’s “right thing to do as of right now” rationale certainly didn’t help his case. But Peterson was more concerned with approach. “If Vick is truly contrite and has found God, he wouldn’t have minimized his crime by describing it as a ‘mistake’ or as ‘immature,’” the Reverend complained. “He would have confessed, assumed total responsibility, and then asked God to give him the strength to endure his punishment.”
Peterson’s comment points to why Vick didn’t receive similar backlash or accusations of insincerity after his Super Bowl breakfast speech. Redemption comes at a price—he’s recognized his error, he’s paid the price, he’s learned from his misdeed, and he’s dedicated, in God’s name, to turning his life around. In his complaints about Vick, Peterson criticized others in the spotlight who had “abused Jesus’ name” in order to absolve their transgressions, pointing to the prevalence of embracing a Christian narrative of redemption in the United States and emphasizing the importance of its legitimacy.
By attesting to Vick’s faith, and standing by his side while he delivered his Super Bowl breakfast testimony, Tony Dungy is a powerful and, in the world of sports, unparalleled, authenticator. Mentors have long been a vital part of scandalized figures’ quest for public forgiveness, often among sports stars and particularly within a Christian context. Vick’s association with the retired coach undoubtedly helped him get back on track, by helping to strengthen and validate his religious faith in the face of critics, by fostering leadership values and skills, and, most significantly for his public redemption, by being a chief supporter of his reinstatement by the NFL.
Dungy has only one criterion for measuring Vick’s success: “Whether Michael ever regains the status and standing he once had in the NFL is not as important as what kind of man he becomes.” And what Dungy hopes Vick will become what he himself is—a Christian leader and a mentor who “can have a positive impact on other young men.” But Dungy is wrong to discount the tremendous role on-field success can, and indeed already has, played.
As the nation witnessed on Monday Night Football last week, Vick’s performance on the field is an integral part, if not the integral part, of the redemption story. Through his awe-inspiring achievements, the naturally talented athlete has demonstrated his personal rehabilitation. While his embrace of Christianity and his relationship with Tony Dungy (along with his apologies and remorsefulness and dedication) created an essential foundation, produced the necessary conditions, for public redemption, it was his athletic triumph that solidified it. Religion scholar Anthea Butler agrees. “I don’t think there was any way for Vick to redeem himself other than on the field,” she wrote. “The American public likes penitents, but they also like a good redemption story.”
In August 2009, when dog-loving Eagles owner Jeff Lurie reluctantly accepted Reid’s and McNabb’s appeals, and Dungy’s assurance, that his should be the team to give Michael Vick his shot at a second chance, Dungy saw it as an opportunity for Vick to “become a symbol of some great leadership and Christian forgiveness.” In Philadelphia, Vick has certainly done that, earning not just Christian forgiveness, but public redemption. But he’s achieved something arguably more praiseworthy in the city of Brotherly Love. He’s won the hearts of passionate, “would-boo-their-own-mother,” notoriously unforgiving Philadelphia fans.
[Editor’s Note: This version of the story differs significantly from the first version we posted. Technical difficulties. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.]