In this attempt to make something decent of his life, Michael Vick has no shortage of people willing to demonstrate two old-fashioned virtues that at times seem to have all but disappeared in big-time sports: leadership and compassion.
Hopefully, Vick recognizes he is the benefactor of extreme generosity in both areas from a quartet of men who seem capable of helping him reconstruct not just his football career but his life. There's no single person in Vick's universe as perfectly suited to mentor him as the recently retired Tony Dungy, the quietest but most credible man in football. The coach who has taken in Vick, Andy Reid, knows intimately of young men in trouble because his own sons, Britt and Garrett, have slid into the underworld of drugs and incarceration. Reid says, not surprisingly, he's big on second chances.
While the initial reaction to the news of Vick going to Philadelphia was that it would undermine the incumbent quarterback, Donovan McNabb, it turns out McNabb is the one who told Reid that the Eagles should get him.
"Without that input from Donovan," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said, "no way would I have gone in that direction."
And that brings me to Lurie, the former Hollywood producer with an advanced degree in psychology who just made the most difficult decision in his professional life. Lurie, who has always seemed to me to be one of the most thoughtful owners in sports, is the most important figure in the Vick story, as it turns out.
Like Reid and McNabb, Lurie is a dog owner and lover. It's one thing to talk about believing in second chances philosophically. It's another to welcome into your very public organization a convicted dog killer. And Lurie, very clearly, is conflicted if not outright tortured by the decision, which was playing much better nationally than in Philadelphia, where sports fans have traditionally been the nation's most reactionary and severe.
"This is not a slam dunk," Lurie said, putting aside rhetoric and going right to the heart of the issues he was dealing with. "Michael's going to have to absolutely be committed to being proactive. I hope as we go forward Michael will prove his value to society. My own measurement (of whether bringing in Vick will be a success) will be if he is able to diminish the (level) of animal cruelty. . . . If he's not proactive, he will not be on the team because that's part of the agreement. . . . It's now up to him to prove he deserves a second chance. It's in actions, not words. . . . There's no room for error on Michael's part. There's no third chances. . . . If it becomes apparent that we're wrong it won't take very long to make that change. . . . This is something we think can improve the team and at the same time make social change."
Lurie called it a "soul-searching decision" and said he doesn't disagree with those who feel that not everybody deserves a second chance.
But here's what I like about Lurie's sensibilities and vision.
"Sometimes," he told reporters gathered in Philadelphia on Friday morning, "when you run a professional sports team, you have to make unpopular and counterintuitive decisions."
Lurie saw a man, 29 years old, who he feels is legitimately remorseful, who appears ready to change his life, and Lurie felt that man could help his product. So he went for it -- not without reservations but with the knowledge that nothing that produces the greatest rewards is every easy. It's a difficult call, but that doesn't mean Lurie and McNabb and Reid and Dungy should run from it.
The easy call would have been to let the callers on sports talk radio run the team, or righteous columnists, or skittish sponsors or animal rights activists. Don't get me wrong, if Vick weren't prodigiously talented, nobody would care where he plays. As Reid himself said, "We're not doing this just for charity." The Eagles think Vick could push them over the top, get them from runner-up in the league and the conference to champion.
But the Eagles aren't the only ones who could use Vick. At least a half-dozen teams and as many as a dozen who could have upgraded the position by putting Vick second on the depth chart.
Some owners probably didn't want the hassle, and it's their right to avoid it. Others legitimately don't feel it within themselves to offer that second chance, which also is their right. Still others probably wanted to but didn't have the fortitude to make the call Lurie did, with the assistance of Reid and McNabb.
The person who probably will never get enough credit if this works for the Eagles will be McNabb, who at 32 has two, maybe three, really good years left to be a starting quarterback if he can stay healthy. McNabb has been involved in one mini-drama after another, crazy stuff outside of his control like some NAACP fool in Philadelphia questioning his blackness one year. There was the Terrell Owens episode. It's as if Donovan wakes up and -- BAM! -- there's controversy at his door.
The moment Vick's signing became news the very first question most folks had was, "Are they replacing Donovan McNabb?" And surely, if McNabb goes 10 for 25 with a couple of picks in Week 4, the same knuckleheads ranting on sports talk radio in Philadelphia will be chanting for Vick. The same knuckleheads railing against it now will be wearing Vick jerseys if he throws two touchdowns from the wildcat formation.
There are so many levels and layers to the Vick story, which will only take on more drama between now and December. But Vick graded out pretty close to perfect on his first day. If we didn't see the "self-hatred" that Lurie said he saw, we saw remorse and contrition. What sticks with me was Vick saying, "I can't understand for the life of me why I was involved in such pointless activity ... why I risked so much at the pinnacle of my career."
If that's not exactly deep introspection, it's a step in the right direction. For now, we should commend Lurie, McNabb, Reid and Dungy and take Vick at his word when he says as he did this morning, "I'm glad to have this opportunity, this second chance . . . and I won't disappoint."