The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michael Vick found a future on TV, but his past is still chasing

Former NFL player and Fox NFL analyst Michael Vick poses for a portrait at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. (Ian Maddox for The Washington Post)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Michael Vick appears in the lobby dressed in all-black sweats, a look that helps one of the NFL’s most famous — and at one point, most infamous — retirees find a seat in the middle of the hotel’s restaurant without notice. He’s lean and fit; the gray hairs on his chin are all that keep you from assuming Vick could still make a pair of defenders comically take out each other in an attempt to tackle him.

Vick was once the future — not the first dual-threat quarterback in NFL history but the reimagined version, the one whose game looked as though it had been created with the assistance of computer-generated imaging. But the future is now the present, and the quarterback position has finally gone where Vick was supposed to take it.

Vick, settling in for lunch on a fall Saturday, says he “changed the game” but admits that so much was left on the table. He retired without winning an MVP award or a Super Bowl ring, and he knows his trophy mantel would’ve been more crowded, his reputation less tattered, if not for his own hubris and an inability to reject the lures of the Newport News, Va., neighborhood that made him.

“I was a kid from the ghetto,” Vick says. “I never wanted to leave.”

His involvement in a deadly dogfighting ring halted a breathtaking career in its prime. He served his time, but no matter what he has done since — becoming a spokesman for animal rights, regaining all-pro status after his time in prison, finding a second career in broadcasting — he can’t scramble from the stain. Still, he’s here, trying, with stories to share and a legacy linked to his darkest moment.

“I hate it,” Vick, 41, says between bites of Caesar salad. “I think about that more than all the good years and the good times. S---, it hurt [my chances of] going in the Hall of Fame. It’s going to impact everything. But it was all self-inflicted. I was young. I didn’t have no guidance. I don’t use this as no excuse. I could’ve said, ‘No.’ I could’ve made those right decisions, like, ‘This ain’t for me.’ That’s a blemish that I will never be able to erase.”

While Vick continues to express his regrets and shame, it has never pushed him into hiding. Instead, he has embarked on a fourth act as a football analyst on Fox, leaving himself exposed to criticism for both his takes and his past. His purpose, he says, was realized days after his release from that 18-month prison stint, when his daughter, London — born one month before he was incarcerated — finally warmed to his presence and lovingly plopped a piece of bacon in his mouth.

“That melted me,” Vick says, and in that moment, it hit him: “This is what I’m living for here.”

Being like Mike

Twenty years after Vick became the first Black quarterback to be drafted No. 1, his influence is undeniable. The late Bobby Bowden’s prediction before his Florida State team faced Vick and Virginia Tech in the national title game in January 2000 — “In 10 years, you’re going to have a bunch of Michael Vicks running all over the field” — hasn’t exactly come to fruition. But Black quarterbacks are more prevalent, leading their teams to Super Bowls and winning MVP awards. And NFL general managers have spent the past two decades trying to find and groom the next iterations of Vick.

“I think a lot of what we’re seeing now goes back to those late ’90s and early 2000s with Mike,” says Tony Dungy, a Hall of Fame coach and NFL analyst for NBC as well as a mentor and friend to Vick. “So many of these guys that are playing now — Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson — they grew up watching Mike Vick and feeling like: ‘Okay, I don’t have to change my skill set. In fact, my skill set can be great.’ ”

Vick’s viewpoints, which he expresses every Sunday on “Fox NFL Kickoff,” carry the weight of being from someone who helped make it possible for mobile quarterbacks to thrive in a league that once made excuses for their exclusion. He was a cultural phenomenon not long after the Atlanta Falcons traded up to make him an unsuspecting historical figure. But he attributes the shift to an evolution of football that was eventually going to tilt his direction, toward speed and agility.

“It ain’t even hit me then when it happened. ... I was just happy to be drafted,” he says of going No. 1 overall. “I never felt the pressure to perform because of the color of my skin or because I was a Black quarterback. I felt like I was going through something that every quarterback went through before me: ‘You better win, or we’ll boo your ass out the stadium.’ So that’s the pressure I felt.”

Vick doesn’t want to be defined or demonized by his transgressions. Those 548 days he spent in prison for the Bad Newz Kennels dogfighting ring — much of it spent mopping floors on a midnight shift and sleeping in barracks ruled by cockroaches — left room for introspection. He had enough money and adulation to believe he was invincible but learned how quickly he could lose it all.

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Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who famously carted an injured Vick out on a wheelchair during his injury-marred 2003 season, wanted back a portion of the signing bonus from the 10-year, $130 million contract that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player. The franchise he thought he would lead to Super Bowls had moved on, selecting Matt Ryan in the 2008 draft. He lost his grandmother. He filed for bankruptcy. He was broken.

“I didn’t know if I was ever going to play again,” Vick says. “I just needed to get out of there. I learned how important it is to have your freedom.”

Vick went from believing he was wronged to seeing where he went wrong and what needed to change. When Dungy came to visit him at federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., he recalls, Vick said, “People think I’m a bad person, and I’m not.”

A financial bailout from rapper T.I. — at the height of his popularity, Vick had appeared in his friend’s video for the hit single “Rubber Band Man” — got Vick afloat until the NFL let him back in. But second chances aren’t always promised, even for those with preternatural talent. Andy Reid, then coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, felt Vick was remorseful and worthy of another opportunity. Vick believes the partnership was destined for other reasons.

While in prison, Vick had promised his girlfriend, Kijafa Frink, that he would marry her once he came home. But Vick had a tendency to be self-absorbed and to say what felt right in the moment. His urgency waned once he got out. Then, one morning, Vick says, Kijafa — who had moved to Leavenworth to be closer to him — packed up their two daughters, Jada and London, and moved back to her native Philadelphia. Two days later, Vick says, he signed with the Eagles for an opportunity to restore his career — and a chance to win back his family.

“Saved our relationship,” says Vick, who married Kijafa in 2012. “I called her and said, ‘I need your help.’ ”

Vick realizes some would punish him for perpetuity, but he had more to prove to himself — first as a man, then as a football player. He fulfilled his obligations to the Humane Society by speaking out against dogfighting and owning the mistakes he made. He visited prisons to speak to inmates.

“It’s not making amends; I want to continue to do what’s in my heart,” Vick says. “I want to do more with the animal welfare space. I’m a big-time animal lover, and I hate that stigma has been put on me — like I don’t care and [what happened] doesn’t mean anything to me. I hate that.”

Vick owns dogs but doesn’t like to discuss them at length because, he says, “people can be so judgmental.” He did mention his Rottweiler, Lotus, whom he describes as “the sweetest dog ever.”

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A new play

Vick is in his fifth season with “NFL Kickoff,” the pregame show before Fox’s primary pregame show — and that’s the longest run of any ex-player analyst associated with the program. He doesn’t know where this gig will take him or for how long. He has a little interest in coaching but isn’t ready to commit that much time away from his family. For now, Vick finds himself catching a flight from his home in South Florida to Los Angeles every weekend for the hour-long show Sunday mornings.

“I don’t know if there’s a more relevant name to discuss the modern-day quarterback than Mike,” says Spandan Daftary, the show’s senior coordinating producer. “He knows exactly what they’re going through.”

After their Saturday prep meetings, Vick and Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson, his fellow analyst, usually meet up at the hotel restaurant to watch college football, eat and drink. Woodson recalls how his Green Bay Packers set off the Vick resurgence in 2010, the season in which Vick would win the Comeback Player of the Year award, amid a sustained backlash.

The Packers’ game plan, Woodson says, was to rattle starter Kevin Kolb with blitzes, constant pressure and hard hits. It was working, but it backfired when linebacker Clay Matthews knocked Kolb out of the game. Vick had three years of lost time to unleash.

“We’re like: ‘Ah s---. We got to deal with this motherf-----,’ ” Woodson says as he and Vick laugh.

The Eagles lost, but Vick carved up the eventual Super Bowl champions with dynamic runs and dart-like throws, nearly completing a comeback. His third act had begun.

Before and after incarceration, Vick was capable of making plays that had never been seen. In his early years, Vick trusted his physical gifts too much to bother with the playbook, which produced some fantastic moments but also frustration. It kept the defense on edge but also had his teammates resembling band members watching a saxophonist go on an extended solo riff.

The other downside for Vick, he says, is that his teams didn’t always invest in offensive linemen or skilled weapons because they employed a player who could mask those deficiencies. Plus, having too much talent can be a curse, because it sometimes negates the incentive to do the work necessary to sustain it.

“I could’ve did more,” says Vick, who with a hint of embarrassment admits he didn’t invest in an offseason training program until after his fifth season, resulting in the first 1,000-yard rushing campaign ever for a quarterback.

After prison, Vick, legs slowed by rust and age, relied more on his arm and intelligence. He also earned a second big contract, which allowed him to pay off all of his debts. Vick had his best passing seasons under Reid, twice tallying more than 3,000 yards. Had he gotten him sooner, Vick says of Reid, they would’ve won Super Bowls together.

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Reid, now with Kansas City, has since won a championship with Patrick Mahomes but won’t speculate about what could’ve been. He would rather note that the success they had together was because of a characteristic that isn’t always mentioned in discussions about Vick: his mind.

“Michael is innately very, very smart,” Reid says. “He’s got a memory that’s, like, ridiculous. You could tell him something one time, and it’s in the vault.”

That was one of the reasons Reid reached out to Vick about taking a coaching internship with the Chiefs a few years after he retired in 2015, after stints with the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. Although he connected with Mahomes, a rookie at the time, and Alex Smith, Vick couldn’t resist when former Fox personality Cris Carter called about appearing on his Fox Sports 1 show, “First Things First.” Reid not only supported Vick, he passed along phone numbers for John Madden and Chris Berman to get some advice on how to become a successful media personality.

Fox has shown a willingness to hire athletes with a checkered past, having employed Pete Rose and Alex Rodriguez. Vick flew out for an audition, and Fox gave him a platform he never could’ve predicted during his playing days, when he was an introvert masking his discomfort with combativeness. Vick was so averse to talking during his career that he dreaded addressing reporters every Wednesday.

“We was put on this Earth to be football players, not analysts, but it’s a special treat,” Vick says, looking over at Woodson. “It’s a special opportunity to sit in that seat and do this, too, because the game needs people like us.”

Four years into his gig as a football analyst, Vick understands there are always more lessons to learn and more homework to be done. TV didn’t come as naturally as football did, so he can’t get by without putting in the work. It requires time, repetition, comfort and confidence. His Saturday nights, after dinner and a haircut, are spent studying and mastering the points he wants to make.

“I love it. It’s an amazing platform. It helps you maximize whatever it is you want to do,” says Vick, who has used his visibility to push causes that are important to him, including animal rights. Fox also assisted with building a teen center at his hometown Boys and Girls Club.

The day after lunch, at a dress rehearsal, Terry Bradshaw, a regular on the network’s main pregame show, arrives unexpectedly to check on the crew. Bradshaw pats former coach Dave Wannstedt and Woodson on the back and walks to the end of the stage, past Vick, to do the same with host Charissa Thompson. He then makes his way back to Vick, wrapping his left arm around Vick’s neck for an embrace before skittering off-camera to observe.

Vick, as the rehearsal convenes, starts to explain how dangerous the Arizona Cardinals’ offense has become after the addition of tight end Zach Ertz, provoking an approving nod from Bradshaw. But as Vick expresses concern upon hearing Murray would have to play this game without his starting center, Woodson and Wannstedt jokingly accuse him of backtracking. Bradshaw, standing behind a cameraman, shouts: “Never tell ’em you don’t know, Mike! Make it up! Make it up and go with it!”

‘I’ll get through this’

If he could go back and speak to his younger self, Vick would advise him to seek more mentorship. He regrets being unable to recognize Falcons Coach Dan Reeves’s attempts to connect with him early in his career and ducking Blank’s calls when the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot reached out for dinner or drinks.

“I didn’t know what I had,” says Vick, who is back on good terms with Blank. He plans to pass along what he learned later in life to the youngest of his four children, 4-year-old Michael Jr. — and that has nothing to with being a quarterback. “I’m teaching him the qualities of a man: ‘Look him in the eye when you talk to him. Shake his hand.’ I didn’t get that. The next generation will be a lot better than me — and won’t have to go through what I went through. I guarantee my sons won’t go to prison.”

Dungy believes Vick’s journey has already provided enough inspiration for his children and anyone else who ends up ridiculed or scorned.

“It’s easy to ride on top. It’s tough to bounce back from that type of adversity and disappointment,” Dungy says. “To say, ‘I’m not going to be defined by mistakes I’ve made; I’m going to be defined by perseverance and my desire to do the right thing,’ it’s a sensational example for people. That was a great first part of what he did. But I think the second part of his career and his life story, from then on out, is much more impressive.”

The kid from Ridley Circle in Newport News isn’t where he ever thought he would be, but Vick is here because of his ability to adapt and advance.

“Everything in our lives, and as professional players, is about a mind-set, because even if you have a setback, something else happens,” Vick says. “We cry when we lose. It’s hard as s--- to win. You love the game that much, you put so much into it, [that] we go through life now like: ‘I went through way worse than this. Whatever; I’ll get through this.’ ”

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