EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Even Michael Vick did not see this happening. Vick, the Eagles’ starting quarterback, is one of the N.F.L.’s most electrifying talents and possibly its most valuable player in 2010. The fact that he is a convicted felon just more than a year out of prison simply makes him this season’s most complicated story.
“It’s as surprising to me as it is to everybody else,” Vick said of his jumpsuit-to-riches turnaround in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “But at the end of the day, I knew I had the talent and what it took to win football games. I just needed an opportunity.”
Vick, convicted in 2007 of operating a dogfighting ring, is the latest in a growing line of athletes who found themselves tangled in scandal and used the redemptive power of their athletic ability to scramble away from the sordidness. Few, if any, have done so with such unexpected aplomb.
With his attention-grabbing play, Vick has redirected the conversation away from what he did off the field to what he is doing on it.
“On-field performance is always going to trump off-field situations,” said John Lord, a professor and chair of the marketing department at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
It has become a familiar cycle in sports. The N.B.A. star Kobe Bryant (rape allegations), the baseball player Alex Rodriguez (admitted use of steroids) and N.F.L. linebacker Ray Lewis (charged with murder, later dropped in a plea bargain) are among those who have partly covered the collective memory of their troubles with sustained, stellar athletic performances.
To some degree, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who faced sexual-assault allegations (charges were not filed) and was suspended for the start of the season for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy, is still trying to do the same. And the golfer Tiger Woods, whose web of marital infidelities became public nearly a year ago, has yet to make people move on.
“If Tiger Woods had come back and won one or two majors, maybe eight tournaments this year, and reasserted himself as the world’s best player, much of the negative experience would have dissipated, much as it has with Vick,” Lord said.
The most stirring example came on Monday night, when Vick had one of the more memorably dynamic individual performances in the sport. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns, including one for 88 yards to DeSean Jackson on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Vick ran eight times for 80 more yards and 2 more touchdowns. The Eagles won, 59-28. They had a 35-0 lead just nine seconds into the second quarter.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame requested Vick’s jersey from the game. The N.F.L. named him the conference offensive player of the week for the second week in a row. Chatter about his being the league’s most valuable player has reached a hum, as has speculation that Vick and the Eagles look like potential Super Bowl winners.
Vick and the Eagles will play the Giants on Sunday night in Philadelphia. The teams are tied atop their division with 6-3 records.
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said he watched Monday night’s game. At some point, he said, he put the pencil down and became a fan.
Asked if he could truly be a “fan” of a player he now must try to stop, Coughlin came clean.
“No,” he said. “I got indigestion, a stomachache.”
That feeling might also describe the sickened feeling of Vick’s countless detractors, those disgusted that someone who systematically tortured dogs is back making millions of dollars in the N.F.L.
Vick, viewed as an intriguing but undisciplined quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons when he signed the league’s biggest contract in 2004, served 18 months in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan.
Weeks after his release in 2009, he was signed by the Eagles, one of the few teams willing to absorb the public-relations maelstrom of Vick’s mere presence. Amid heated debate over second chances, set against a disturbing backdrop of animal torture, Vick eased onto the roster as a third-string quarterback last season. After Philadelphia unexpectedly traded the longtime quarterback Donovan McNabb to the Redskins last spring, Vick assumed the relatively anonymous role as backup to Kevin Kolb.
But Kolb sustained a concussion in the season’s first game. Vick immediately dazzled and soon snared the starting job. He was the National Football Conference’s offensive player of the month in September and, at 30, is having the best season of his career. He will be a free agent at season’s end, which puts him in line for multiyear contract offers worth tens of millions of dollars — perhaps from teams that had no stomach for what he represented a year ago.
Until then, Philadelphia fans are increasingly daydreaming of the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, with a convicted felon leading the way. It is a tug of war of ambivalence.
“It’s a naïve notion in 2010 to want your victors to be virtuous, yet it is clearly part of the emotion invested in any favorite team,” Sam Donnellon, a columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, wrote from the press box on Monday night.
On Wednesday Donnellon said that the pendulum of public opinion in Philadelphia is swinging in Vick’s favor.
“The pulse right now is to forgive him because he just scored a bunch of touchdowns,” Donnellon said in an interview.
There will always be a strong-minded faction of people unwilling to forgive Vick and unable to muster a cheer for him. And there have long been some who never saw Vick’s actions as wrong — or wrong enough to deserve a prison sentence.
It is the gulf in between that seems to have been sloshing around, trying to keep separate what Vick did off the field from what he does on it, or making complicated judgments on whether forgiveness should be hastened by strong performances.
“Now do you go out hunting for a Michael Vick jersey for your 8-year-old, 10-year-old, 12-year-old?” Donnellon said. “What are you saying to your kid? That everyone deserves a second chance? I’m O.K. with that. But this soon?”
That internal struggle has plagued people, including Lord, the marketing professor and a longtime Philadelphia resident.
“To tell the truth, I’m changing my attitude a little,” he said. “I’m more willing to forgive and forget because that seems to be where the momentum is going.”
Since joining the Eagles, Vick has followed the well-worn path of public contrition. He has called his conviction the best thing to happen to him. On Wednesday he said that he speaks at schools and does work with the Humane Society, “just so I can help save lives and prevent people from going through difficult times and troubles that can be prevented.”
He admitted that his performance on the field was a big part of his reputational rehabilitation, too.
“Yeah, I think it is,” he said. “This league is about going out and showing improvement, and, you know, basically being a man of your word, and not just talking but doing. That’s what I try to do since I’ve been here, you know, just try to improve each and every time I’ve got an opportunity.”
It all feels far removed from 15 months ago, as Vick embarked on his postprison career. Fierce debate ensued in Philadelphia and beyond. Should he even be allowed to play? Did he pay a fair debt to society? And does forgiveness have anything to do with performance?
“You hate to say it, but there’s probably nothing that can repair his image like four touchdown passes and two 40-yard runs,” Andy Appleby, chief executive of Michigan-based General Sports and Entertainment, told The Daily Press of Newport News, Va. — Vick’s hometown — in August 2009. “Sports fans have a short memory.”
On Wednesday, his words ringing prophetic, Appleby said that Vick is creating an amazing story.
The question is just how much of his biography revolves around cruelty to dogs, and how much is about success in football.
“The beautiful thing about sports,” Appleby said, “is that you get to write history every day.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/sports/football/19vick.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2&src=me