NEW YORK -- The NFL’s most vilified player three years ago for his involvement in a dogfighting ring, quarterback Michael Vick has come back after 19 months in prison with a new maturity and has Philadelphia Eagles fans dreaming of their first championship in 50 years.
On the gridiron, Vick has impressed foes with his patience as he coolly scans passing options among his NFC East-leading team mates where in earlier days he would take off, using his speed to race off at the first hint of trouble in the pocket.
The National Football League’s (NFL) top-rated passer still combines the ability to break out on an electrifying run with a rifle-strong arm to reach an assortment of big-play receivers.
Off the field, the new Vick has turned his disgrace into something positive.
Last week, he spoke to inner-city school students in New Haven, Connecticut, on the evils of dogfighting as part of his ongoing relationship with the Humane Society of the United States, whose members had initially urged the NFL to ban him.
“He made three school presentations and spoke to nearly 2,000 kids,” Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“On his day off, he got up at five in the morning, took a 6.30 a.m. train from Philadelphia for a three-hour ride to New Haven and spent the whole day talking to kids as part of our anti dog-fighting campaign.”
The unusual partnership took form during a meeting Pacelle had with Vick at the U.S. prison where he was serving the sentence imposed after his August 2007 guilty plea to financing and participating in a dogfighting ring.
The details of brutality that emerged from the case shocked those who had rooted for and admired the former number one draft choice and three-time All-Pro with the Atlanta Falcons who had become the highest-paid player in the NFL.
Court papers said Vick participated in the execution of underperforming dogs who were hanged, electrocuted, drowned and sometimes slammed to death on the ground.
“When I first met with him at Leavenworth at the end of his period of incarceration, I said: ‘I’m not interested in this if you’re interested in getting your name on a press release or if you want to do a PSA (public service announcement),” Pacelle said.
“I’m only interested if you make a sacrifice and invest hours of your time on each occasion over a long period. It was a risk. We’d been his toughest critic and it was our supporters who wrote to (sponsors) NIKE and the NFL and said: ‘dump him’.”
The Eagles gave Vick a second chance at the NFL. After serving a two-game suspension at the start of the 2009 season, Vick became the team’s third-string quarterback and ran the club’s sporadically-used wildcat formation.
Vick rededicated himself to football last summer after nearly blowing his second chance by getting involved with old friends and leaving his 30th birthday bash only just before a shooting that wounded one of his dogfighting co-defendants.
According to a recent Sports Illustrated cover story, Vick was ordered by his probation officer to leave his Virginia hometown after the incident and set up in Philadelphia.
Vick, not known for his work ethic during his Falcon days, immersed himself in preparations for 2010. He began the season as the back-up but when his chance came to step in for the injured Kevin Kolb, he grabbed it.
“I had to go through what I went through to be where I am now,” Vick told Sports Illustrated.
Vick, whose signing with the Eagles brought howls of protest from fans and the city’s animal lovers, is now being hailed as the face of a team on the rise.
All his brilliance was on display in a 59-28 rout of the Washington Redskins in which he threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more, winning praise around the league.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell joined in the chorus.
“We need our kids to see that kind of success story,” Goodell told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “This young man has turned his life around, and he’s going to contribute.”
Vick repeats the mantra of taking it one game at a time, but he knows he is not only building a Philadelphia playoff run but auditioning for his future.
With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Vick is doing double duty, dazzling on the gridiron for the Eagles and pitching for the Humane Society on his days off.
Pacelle said Vick had already contributed 24 speaking dates to the Humane Society’s programme.
“Who better to reach these at-risk kids than someone who fell victim to the traps of dogfighting?” Pacelle said. “He goes in with no notes, speaks off the cuff and speaks very personally and passionately with a soft voice. He really communicates well and connects with the kids.”
“He has turned a very horrible thing into something positive.”
Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel is a new fan of Vick.
“I didn’t know him that well when he was in Atlanta. I didn’t know his practice habits and all that but I can tell you now that he is a professional,” he told reporters. “He comes to work every day and tries to perfect his game. He is a leader.”