Michael Vick: The Redemptive Measure of a Superstar

NFL quarterback Michael Vick (white shirt) has turned around his life on and off the football field./BET NETWORKS/PRNewswire

By Dennis J. Freeman

The stigma still lingers. But as each day passes, Michael Vick is doing his best to wipe the slate clean from his dogfighting days, a season in his life which eventually landed the one-time NFL megastar in prison and cost him millions of dollars.

Eighteen months ago, Vick sat behind bars, unemployed, financially bankrupt…his status as an elite NFL quarterback shattered with devastating consequences.

Today, Vick is yet on the path to superstardom again, thanks to a stellar season he is having as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, including his once-in-a-lifetime-performance against the Washington Redskins in front of a Monday night nationally-televised audience.

In perhaps the most dominant game performed by one man in a single game, Vick accounted for six touchdowns in the Eagles’ 59-28 win, throwing for four touchdowns and running for two more scores.

Vick’s stunning performance didn’t just announce his arrival as a premier signal-caller once again, but it emphatically punctuated his life’s turnaround. Just two years ago, Vick was a reviled and scorned man for his part in a dogfighting operation. The allegations levied against Vick caught even some of the people closest to him off-guard.

James “Poo” Johnson was one of those people. Johnson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Hampton Roads in Newport News, Virginia, is a longtime mentor to Vick and other professional sports athletes, including former NBA superstar Allen Iverson and retired NFL quarterback Aaron Brooks. He’s especially close to Vick, whom he took under his wing when the Eagles quarterback was just a youngster.

Vick even touches on that bond between Johnson and himself in actor Denzel Washington’s bestselling book, “A Hand to Guide Me.”

“He kind of took me under his wing,” Vick states in the book. “I guess he took every kid under his wing. He took an interest in everyone and was always making sure everybody was on the right track, doing the right things…He was tough too.

“He kicked me out of the club four or five times, but after a couple of days he’d always let me back. That was his discipline…He was very demanding. After a while, I figure it out and made sure I stayed on Poo’s good side. My mother said she didn’t know what would have happened to me if it weren’t for Poo Johnson.”

That closeness couldn’t shield Johnson from the shockwave of media scrutiny that followed Vick once chargers were brought against his protégée.  

 Johnson expressed sadness and disbelief about the allegations against Vick.              

“I’m shocked that this happened,” Johnson said in a phone interview before Vick plead guilty to the federal dogfighting charges. “That’s not the Michael Vick that I know. By people coming out now and portraying him like a monster…That’s just not the same dude I know. He’s done some good things in the community, and will probably continue to do some good things.  [But] they’ve already charged him, tried him and executed him in the media.”

Michael Vick was a star with the Atlanta Falcons before he went to prison. He is now the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles./UpperDeck/PRNewswire

Johnson said the dogfighting conviction brought against Vick by federal authorities has not changed his relationship with him.

“The only thing I can talk about is my personal relationship with Mike,” Johnson said. “It’s good. My relationship with all these guys is good.”

The way Vick has been able to re-invent his game on the field exceeds being good. It’s downright remarkable. Even more remarkable is the way Vick has changed his life off of the field as well. Vick has shed the friends he once associated himself with. He’s revamped his financial issues, getting on track to reclaim what he lost in the offseason as a free agent. And his personal life has stabilized with his children surrounding him and talks of getting married.

Working in his hometown for nearly three years as a daily sports reporter, I had the fortune of meeting and interviewing Vick on several occasions. What I got each time was a man who is extremely charismatic, reserved, and humble. Vick’s presence exudes quiet assuredness. It’s not far-fetched to see him get his life back on track.

Vick was provided with enough influential people to help him if he strayed from the principles he grew with. Johnson, Vick’s mother, Brenda, and high school coach Tommie Reamón served as chief stabilizers the electric football star leaned on. And it’s not too far off to think that those three individuals all have played a part in Vick’s redemption back to society.

In coming back to the real world, Vick has done what is required of him like any other inmate tries to do: fit back into society. It wasn’t easy at first, especially when it was announced he was picked up by the Eagles. Animal rights activists showed up protesting just about every move he made. Those protesters have now been drowned out.

And they should be. Vick lost just about everything imaginable, including his name, reputation, security, friends and a boatload of money. What makes Vick’s story extraordinary is that he has apologized for his actions. He has paid his debt to society with his prison stay. And he now speaks to students about the evils of dogfighting.   

Some people, however, will never forgive Vick, despite the fact that his star glow is beginning to shine again. Johnson said that the burden for being a high-profiled celebrity like Vick is heavy. It also comes with the territory, he said.

 “I like to think about this two-fold,” Johnson said. “I like to think that the expectations of superstars are greater than it is for anybody else. It just so happens that most of the superstars, especially in football and basketball, are black.

“The other slant is that there could be some jealousy and some prejudice that could come into play on the way people react. It could be a class thing. People that work everyday…they just have a disdain for a professional athlete or entertainer that have millions of dollars.”

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