Those who know Michael Vick say he's been a better man, not just a better football player

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 10:22 PM

Michael Vick is dodging defenders on a football field as artfully as he did in his previous NFL life with the Atlanta Falcons, before he missed two seasons serving a federal prison sentence. His throws in recent weeks have been more accurate than they were then. He has orchestrated consecutive wins as the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. His play has become the talk of the sport.

Vick's locker was surrounded by reporters three to four rows deep when Vick reached it early Wednesday afternoon at the Eagles' training complex in Philadelphia. He surveyed the chaotic scene and said, "This is amazing."

Indeed it is, but on a far bigger scale than Vick was contemplating. Vick may be crafting the ultimate comeback story, but in addition to the professional revival that could be in the works, a larger question remains: Has the redemption of Michael Vick begun?

Few seem ready to pronounce that with certainty, at least at this point, but those who know him well say they're hopeful that Vick has turned around his life as well as his football career, and that the changes will be lasting.

"I never lost pride in him," said Vick's grandfather, James Boddie. "He's my grandson. Whether he's famous or not, he's my grandson. Michael has done a lot of good things. I know him as a person. He's a good guy. How he got into that other thing, I don't know. I'm just glad he's come to his senses."

Boddie, who lives near Baltimore, said that "people cursed me" and "defaced my truck" when Vick pleaded guilty to a federal charge in connection with his role in a dogfighting operation. When he's in public these days, Boddie said, acquaintances now approach to comment on how well Vick is playing.

"At his sentencing, he said he had to make [himself] another man," Boddie said. "I think he's fulfilling that pledge, on and off the field . . . That jail thing - he doesn't ever want to go that way again. That did something to his psyche. He knows right from wrong. He knows what it took to get him to the status he had. He knows how to tell some people to go hang around with someone else."

Vick said Wednesday he's proud of his progress off the field as well as on it.

"I feel good about where I'm at right now in my life and in football," Vick said. "Like I always say, life is always a work in progress and things happen in phases and stages. You know, you just have to adjust and roll with the punches."

Vick was in the news in June when it was reported that his former dogfighting co-defendant, Quanis Phillips, was shot and wounded at a 30th birthday party for Vick in Virginia Beach. A prosecutor said later that Vick was involved in a confrontation before the shooting but left the restaurant three to five minutes before the shooting and had no role in it.

Vick's past misdeeds certainly aren't forgotten. When Eagles Coach Andy Reid last week named Vick the team's permanent starter, a headline in the Philadelphia Daily News read: "Top Dog."

Asked this week for a reaction to Vick's return to prominence, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a written statement through a spokesperson that said: "As long as he's throwing a football and not electrocuting a dog, PETA is pleased he is focused on his game."

But Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the U.S., said Vick "has stuck with his original pledge" to make appearances for the organization as part of its anti-dogfighting campaign.

"When I met with him, I told him, 'I'm not interested in a press release. I want a long-term commitment. I need three years,' " Pacelle said. "He said, 'I'm making a life-long commitment.' "

Vick agreed to make two appearances per month on behalf of the Humane Society. Generally, Pacelle said, those talks have come before gatherings of urban kids, many of whom have witnessed dogfights. Vick "is greeted with standing ovations," he said.

Even soon after his release from prison, Vick "was treated as a celebrity," Pacelle recalled. "That made it all the more important for him to deliver the message he's delivering.

"There's no question the Vick case has had an enormous catalytic effect on our efforts to eliminate dogfighting in this country. . . . We pushed for his prosecution. Our people were in a lather over it, and rightfully so," Pacelle said. "But I felt like endlessly castigating him was not helpful to our efforts."

Pacelle said he initially had his doubts about Vick's motives.

"I was skeptical, but I was also ready if he really wanted to help," Pacelle said. "I also knew he had a very strong professional and personal incentive to get clean. Look at how much he lost. If you can't learn the lesson at that point, you're almost pathological. The pressure moved him in our direction."

There are few signs these days of the protestors who once showed up at Vick's games and practices. Nevertheless, Rhea Hughes, a talk show host at Philadelphia sports radio station WIP, said in an e-mail that "we still get fans who call in and say they can't root for Vick."

There are some football-related considerations. Hughes said Vick was booed in the season opener by fans who thought it was disruptive to then-starting quarterback Kevin Kolb when Vick took the field to run the Eagles' version of the wildcat offense. But then Vick was cheered as the full-time quarterback in the second half.

"If you throw shiny happy touchdowns - people will get over your ugly past real quick," Hughes wrote.

Hughes said she has two rescue pit bulls and has been outspoken that she "will never root for the guy." She wrote: "Vick has every right to play in [the] NFL. Served his time. Just wish it wasn't for the team I grew up rooting for. Kinda ruined Sundays in my family's home."

When the Eagles signed Vick before last season, owner Jeffrey Lurie said the success of the move wouldn't be measured by how Vick played, but by how he conducted himself off the field and the impact he made on society.

Those who know Vick say he realizes he never will be forgiven by some.

"I was at a barbecue with him in the early part of the summer, and I just pray for him. I see him on TV and rejoice. I hope one day I'll see him in the Super Bowl," Boddie said. "If he keeps his nose clean, who knows, maybe one day he'll be in the Hall of Fame. But he has to turn a deaf ear because some people will never let him live that down."

Dan Reeves, Vick's first NFL head coach with the Falcons, said this week: "He paid a tremendous price for what he did. I'm just thrilled for him. . . . I talked to him last week and I told him I'm proud of the way he's handling himself. He's saying the right things. He's doing the right things. He's associating with the right people.

"I knew he could play the game of football," Reeves said. "That wasn't my concern. I hope he continues doing the right things in his personal life and associates with the right people. His football career will be a short period of his life. I want him to be the man that I know he can be."

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