Rupert Cornwell: An all-American tale of sin and redemption

Out of America: It looked like star quarterback Michael Dwayne Vick had lost everything, but then he was offered a second chance...

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New Year is the time for new starts and wiping slates clean. So what better than to consider the extraordinary tale of Michael Dwayne Vick, erstwhile practitioner of the foul and illegal business of dogfighting – a disgraced athlete who has climbed back from the depths of national ignominy to the very pinnacle of his chosen sport.

Three short years ago, he was inmate No 33765-183 of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, having barely begun a 23-month sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, as punishment for his involvement with the Bad Newz Kennels, a dogfighting operation Vick ran at an estate he owned in rural Virginia. Today he is the superstar quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, and by one measure the most admired player in the entire National Football League, the richest professional sports league on the planet. So remarkable has been his resurrection that Barack Obama himself was moved last week to hold it up as an example for the nation.

The president's intervention may not have been politically wise. For every person who regards Vick as a poster boy for spiritual redemption, there is another convinced he is a sadistic, overpaid thug who should have been banned from the NFL for life.

The old Michael Vick of early 2007 was a familiar figure – the brash and swaggering sports star with a permanent entourage of hangers-on to inflate his massive ego further. Of his athletic abilities, there was no argument. In 2004, Vick signed a 10-year $130m (c £80m) contract with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons team, which made him the then highest-paid player in league history.

Then the Bad Newz broke. In summer 2007, Vick was charged with running a dogfighting ring that extended across state borders. As the criminal case unfolded, one repulsive detail followed another. Vick, it emerged, not only funded the operation; he had himself hanged, drowned and electrocuted some underperforming animals. Disgrace was quickly followed by financial ruin. The Falcons demanded their money back, business associates sued for breach of contract, and his legal fees grew exponentially. In August 2008 Vick filed for bankruptcy, citing liabilities of up to $50m. The strutting megastar had been reduced to a virtually penniless jailbird, who had lost his homes and everything else.

But in Leavenworth, as Vick tells it, he saw the light. His misfortunes had been entirely self-inflicted. Dog-fighting had been part of his child-hood, but what had happened "was all my fault". The past was hard to talk about, he told interviewers, "but if you talk about it and let it all out, it kind of helps put the demons to rest".

The road to redemption had begun. Vick left prison in summer 2009, and was provisionally reinstated by the NFL. At first, no team would have him. But in mid-August he was signed by the Eagles as a back-up quarterback on a one-year contract for $1.5m, a pittance by NFL standards, with the option for a second. That first season in Philadelphia, Vick showed enough of his old ability to be retained for the second year, but still only as a reserve.

Then his luck changed. The Eagles' starting quarterback was struck by injury and Vick took over. During the 2010 regular season he wasn't merely good, he was sensational. Across the country, football fans made him their top choice for the ProBowl, the NFL's all-star game. Conceivably, Vick could lead the Eagles to a first-ever triumph in the Super Bowl, the biggest event on America's sporting calendar; it is also possible that a convicted felon will receive the supreme accolade of being named the NFL's Most Valuable Player for the 2010 season. All of which, predictably, has led to an outbreak of national schizophrenia: America may be a nation of football lovers, but it is also a nation of dog lovers.

The player's heroics on the field and his contrition off it – Vick now works with animal rights groups and talks to schoolchildren about the evils of animal abuse – have won many over. The President, too, appears convinced. Last week Obama called Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles' owner, to thank him for giving Vick another chance. Obama, according to reports of the conversation, said he felt "passionately" about how "there was never a level playing field" for released prisoners, and was hugely grateful to Lurie for allowing Vick the opportunity to rebuild his life. To which opponents reply, fooey. The Eagles were not taking Vick aboard out of altruism; they were making a hardnosed (and cheap) investment in the throwing arm of a once, and perhaps future, superlative quarterback.

Alas, animal lovers complain, the adulation of Vick makes people forget his horrific crimes. One hyperventilating TV pundit has even proclaimed he "should have been executed" for what he did.

But perhaps the true moral of this New Year story is that once they have paid their debt to society, not just convicted football stars, but every one of the two million-plus Americans now behind bars, should be given a second chance.

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