The Michael Vick story? Everyone has a version these days. The young teammates who grew up pretending to be him, the old coaches mesmerized by his jaw-dropping talent, the faithful raving about his big heart? Click on any sports channel. The skeptics recounting the failed drug test, the raised middle fingers, the tricked-out water bottle, the Ron Mexico nom d'amour? Turn on talk radio. Those who will never forget that Vick illegally bred, tortured and killed fighting dogs with those oh-so-gifted hands? Yes. Everywhere. They're all at it again.
Now that his comeback has taken on a seemingly unstoppable momentum, the Michael Vick story has become the irresistible talking point, refreshed each Sunday, refusing easy answers, touching on nearly every theme under the American sun. Take your pick: His pivot from inmate 33765-183 to Philadelphia Eagles superhero is about the public's ability to forgive or its jock-sniffing blindness or its short memory. It's about man's ability to change or to lie, paying one's debt to society or getting away with murder. It's the triumph of greed over principle, or mercy over horror. It's about loaded words like gullibility, redemption, fame and trust.
What you won't hear much, at least as long as the 30-year-old quarterback keeps piling up wins like the Eagles' 27--17 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night, is how the Vick story is also about stupidity and gut-jangling fear. Because Vick's own version is earthier, far less conceptual, than most, featuring a snarling confrontation that he was sure would end this latest, triumphal chapter before it even began.
At around 2:30 a.m. on June 25, Vick sat clutching his weeping fiancée in a Virginia hotel parking lot, mind ticking off the new loaded words about to hit the airwaves—argument, co-conspirator, gunshot wound—and thought, My God. This is about to be a disaster.
"I knew it," Vick says. "I was done."
Hadn't his mother warned him? And all because of birthday cake.
The Michael Vick story? It can also be just about football. For a short time, for three or four hours even, it can be what it was when the Eagles played the Washington Redskins in the rain on Monday night two weeks ago: a cartoonish romp, a celebration of unstoppable skill, maybe even a quantum leap. Vick was so insanely good that night, leading the Eagles to touchdowns on their first five possessions, that it's impossible to name the highlight. Vick flicked his wrist on the first play and hit DeSean Jackson 63 yards on the fly for an 88-yard touchdown; he lofted a 48-yard strike to Jeremy Maclin that had a margin of error of about an inch; he ran for two touchdowns, casually turning the corner on the Redskins' fastest players and making them look slow. "Unbelievable," Hall of Famer Mike Ditka would say a day later. "Like a man playing with boys."
Still, though he crafted three quarters of astonishing athleticism, that wasn't the night's revelation. Spectacular for Vick is nothing new. "Nothing he does surprises me," said Jim Mora Jr., Vick's coach for three years in Atlanta and now an analyst for NFL Network. "I've seen it." What's different now is Vick's discipline, the control he wields over the offense and himself.
"He's better than what he was before all that stuff went down, a helluva lot better," says Eagles defensive end Trent Cole of Vick's two-year exile from the NFL. "His skills improved; he's very keen; he knows when to throw the ball away and when to run. There was all that jawing: They said he couldn't get the ball downfield and wasn't a pocket quarterback. But the man has paid his dues and come a long way. He's getting it done."
There was one moment, midway through the third quarter against the Redskins, when Vick's football maturity revealed itself as a weapon nearly impossible to defend: On third-and-goal at the Washington three-yard line, Vick found the pocket collapsing, stepped left, pumped, scrambled right, reversed himself and then, for just a split-second, did something shocking. He stopped dead, planted. Wide receiver Jason Avant was watching from the back of the end zone: The Redskins were prepared for the usual scrambling pass or a bullrush to the end zone, anything but this—and they froze like rabbits in a viper's gaze. "They just ... stopped," Avant said. Now Vick sighted him. His fourth touchdown pass, a rocket through the Washington statuary, looked as if it could have cracked a rib.