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...

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there