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Can Vick's Gift Keep On Giving?

By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Michael Vick has been reinstated, but can he play? That's the real issue half a dozen NFL teams are considering, and the answer must not be so clear, or Vick would have caught on with one before now. At 29, after two years of inactivity in prison, it's not automatic that he can reclaim the physical brilliance with which he once operated on the field.

The gifts that nature dispensed to Vick so liberally are still there; his trainer says that he runs a time of 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash. But quarterback play in the NFL is also about a combination of precision and spontaneity, the body has to move as the mind scans, and thousands of small judgments are required between perception and action. Vick is bound to be slower not just in his physical reflexes, but his synapses. The question is not just how much quickness has he lost, but how much acuity, and is it recoverable? As Vick's counselor Tony Dungy pointed out not long ago, "If eight years is a good career, he's already missed a quarter of that."

Vick's comeback attempt is an opportunity to examine the term "athleticism," what Peter Keating of Slate.com called "the loathsomely all-purpose word." As Keating pointed out in a prescient essay about Vick two years ago, the vast majority of athletes who take even short breaks are unable to recover their effectiveness, and the NFL is particularly fast, violent and exacting. There are exceptions in some sports -- Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan -- but most athletes lose an indefinable step, or edge. Ricky Williams was never the same after he retired in 2004 in a haze of smoke. Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung lost more than a yard per carry of effectiveness after he was suspended for a year for associating with gamblers. Mike Tyson was never the same boxer after incarceration.

The tennis player Ivan Lendl once remarked that if he took one week off, he needed a month of training to recover the feel in his hands and the reactions of his feet. "If I don't play for two weeks, I can't hit a topspin," he said. "I just lose the timing, I can't move on the court; I lose everything. That's why I can't take a long break. I would love to, but I can't."

Vick began training again when he was still under home confinement. He threw footballs to the son of his old high school coach, Tommy Reamon, though they only had about 30 yards to work with in his garden. Once he was fully released, he apparently embarked on three-a-days under the direction of Tom Shaw, an Orlando-based trainer whose Web site boasts a picture of Tom Brady, and who claims to have conditioned the last nine Super Bowl MVPs. Shaw has said that Vick is basically in good shape, and hasn't lost his foot speed. But what matters more is whether Vick can recover his "explosive movement," his agility, reaction. On a football field, the longest play only lasts six or seven seconds.

That's presumably why general managers such as Green Bay's Ted Thompson are being so cautious when asked if they're interested in Vick. "We look at all options at all times," Thompson said. "I wouldn't care to speculate in terms of the odds or the percentages or anything like that."

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of "This Is Your Brain on Music," estimates that it requires 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft. Studies of professionals from composers to NBA players to ice skaters show that it takes roughly three hours of practice a day, 20 hours a week, for 10 years to achieve the level of expertise we associate with world class. The next time you're tempted to call a pro athlete lazy, consider that stat. Vick had his flaws as a quarterback -- in his last two seasons his record was 15-16 -- but he was undeniably a world-class combination of passer and runner, and he still retains some of that practiced greatness in his muscles, which is why it must be tempting to pick him up.

But Vick's head is just as important as his body, and that may be where the hesitation to sign him lies. Coaches perhaps sense what neuroscientists know for a hard fact, that athleticism is so ephemeral because it is a function of the mind, of delicately reactive brain chemistry. Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and Treo and other handheld devices, explains why in his fascinating book, "'On Intelligence."

Scientists have understood that athleticism is inseparable from the cerebral cortex ever since they tried to program a robot arm to throw and catch a ball, and discovered what amazingly complex processes they are. They can calculate the flight of a ball using basic physics, and coordinate the joints of the robotic arm to move in concert, easily enough. The trouble comes in trying to program reactions.

Take catching. As the ball approaches, the robot gets better information about the ball's trajectory. But if the robot waits until it knows exactly where the ball will land, it will be too late to catch it. It has to start moving when it still has a poor sense of location. A computer requires literally millions of steps to solve these numerous mathematical equations to catch the ball. But a great athlete, a Vick, doesn't make such calculations -- he actually predicts what will happen, by retrieving the old information of hundreds of thousands of catches and throws. Just as, when you hear a familiar tune, your cortex actually predicts the next note before it's played.

An athlete's cerebral cortex stores experiences that reflect the spatial structure of the world, it remembers sequence of events and makes predictions based on those memories, which produce movement. All with blinding speed. A neuron collects inputs from synapses, and combines these inputs to form decision-making, and can reset itself in about five milliseconds -- or around 200 times per second.

"When a ball is thrown, three things happen," Hawkins writes. "First, the appropriate memory is automatically recalled by the sight of the ball. Second, the memory actually recalls a temporal sequence of muscle commands. And third, the retrieved memory is adjusted as it is recalled to accommodate the particulars of the moment, such as the ball's actual path and the position of your body. The memory of how to catch a ball was not programmed into your brain; it was learned over years of repetitive practice, and is stored, not calculated, in your neurons."

Vick possesses a memory bank full of what Hawkins calls "invariant representations," which is the ability to remember concepts independent of details. For instance, though the pattern of light falling on his retina changes every instant, and might not ever be repeated, he still knows a football when he sees one. This is how it's possible for an athlete such as Vick to "learn and apply concepts in this world of infinitely various forms and ever-shifting sensations," Hawkins writes.

If it sounds complex, it is. That's why comebacks are so rare -- and so gratifying, for athlete and spectator alike. Whatever you might feel about Vick's dog-killing offense, it's impossible not to hope that he plays again, and succeeds. Successful comebacks are matters of ultimate emotional fulfillment, because they suggest the athlete has truly discovered and fully used the marvel he or she was given when they were awarded such glorious form.

Dungy has said that Vick appears to have a sense of all that he gave up. If in surrendering two years of his life and career Vick gained an appreciation of his gift, then he will have gained something worthwhile for all he lost. An NFL team is not wrong to be tempted by such a prospect.

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