By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:20 AM
The word "redemption" has been used about Michael Vick to the point of losing its meaning. There's nothing very redeeming in throwing a ball. Even a glass bottle is redeemable at a grocery store. The most basic and literal definition of the term is to buy back something that was pawned. So when we say Vick's season with the Philadelphia Eagles is a redemption story, we're really saying that he has reclaimed himself for a price. Maybe that's not a bad description of what we're watching.
Redemption stories are beautiful and powerful - and often untrue. We construct Hero's Journey narratives out of athletes' careers, and then are baffled and judgmental when they turn out to have felonious alter egos named Ron Mexico. Vick has journeyed from hero to villain and back, and it's tempting to complete the neat circle and call him totally redeemed - or, as some animal lovers do, to write him off as totally irredeemable for life.
Either way, we ought to suspect the impulse. The fact is, Vick's story is complicated, and his comeback stirs emotional confusion.
I'm as seduced by a redemption theme as anyone. My own outrage at Vick as a dogkiller at one time felt limitless. I never thought I'd get the images of those scarred, broken-backed dogs from the Bad Newz Kennels out of my head. Yet I've found myself pulling hard for Vick this season, and I'll watch him avidly against the Redskins on Monday night. I've been dazzled by his unmatched combination of suaveness, precision and spontaneity on the field, and lulled by the emotional richness of his possible redemption. Somehow, Vick has overcome my deep suspicion. "Sucker," I tell myself, furiously.
What is the hold that redemption stories have over us? First of all, Vick's physical reclamation suggests we can recover from terrible self-inflicted reversals and wounds. He cost himself his fortune and irrecoverably his prime with the 18-month jail sentence. As Vick's counselor Tony Dungy pointed out, "If eight years is a good career, he's already missed a quarter of that."
Instead of wallowing in victimhood for his lousy bullet-strafed childhood, or crying persecution for the dog-fighting conviction, he did what no trainer or physiologist on earth would have predicted: He improved after a year and a half in prison. At age 30, he is sharper and smarter, the top-rated quarterback in the NFL with a 61-percent completion rate and 105.3 rating.
He could have done it only with a dedication he didn't have before, and that suggests he's finally gained full appreciation of the gifts nature dispensed to him.
"I'm just enjoying the moment," he said this week. "I'm enjoying being here, I'm enjoying being with this team, I'm enjoying being with Andy [Reid], I'm just having fun right now. I put it all in God's hands. Whatever happens happens."
But redemption stories aren't compelling just because the hero wins. That smacks of redemption in the sense of turning in tin cans for coins. Can Vick really redeem what he did to those dogs? PETA members have been unmoved by Vick's career renewal.
"As long as he's throwing a football and not electrocuting a dog, PETA is pleased he is focused on his game," it said dryly in a statement after Vick was named Philadelphia's starter.
When we talk about Vick's redemption, we're really using the word in the theological sense of debt and repayment, of achieving morality at a price. As Dungy told USA Today, "Whether Michael manages to regain the status he once had in the league is not nearly as important as the kind of man he becomes."
So what sort of man is Vick becoming? We can't know for sure. But so far he's been a man of his word. According to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, Vick has showed a "strong" commitment to educating at-risk kids against dogfighting, and made himself available on a weekly basis for appearances and speaking engagements.
The literary scholar Harold Bloom writes that the most moving redemption stories are not so much about good and evil, or even salvation. "Shakespeare is not interested in saving you or in solving your problems," Bloom writes in the introduction to the essay collection "Sin and Redemption." The real power of a redemption story, he says, is about error, and recognition.
That's where I've begun to pull for Vick. I'm rooting for him to have grown some awareness and sensitivity to cruelty that he previously lacked. Redemption is all about the question: Do dark acts serve a purpose?
One of the things Vick went to prison for was doing all the wrong things for fear of being labeled a phony who forgot where he came from. He seems to have kicked out of that destructive undertow. Lots of us have trouble understanding how Vick could ever harm a dog. But we can certainly understand becoming lost, and it's nice to think there's always a way back.
Use the word redemption too easily, and it becomes a cliche. As Salvador Dali said, "The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."
Vick may make an idiot out of me yet - but I hope not. I hope for him as sincerely as I've ever hoped for an athlete. If the real Michael Vick story is simply that he erred, recognized, and improved, that's redemption. Maybe Vick has repurchased, at a cost, the man he should have been.