While Michael Vick was screaming toward the sky, a black pit bull named Mel was standing quietly by a door.
On this night, like many other nights, Mel was waiting for his owners to take him outside, but he couldn’t alert them with a bark. He doesn’t bark. He won’t bark. The bark has been beaten out of him.
While Michael Vick was running for glory, Mel was cowering toward a wall.
Every time the 4-year-old dog meets a stranger, he goes into convulsions. He staggers back into a wall for protection. He lowers his face and tries to hide. New faces are not new friends, but old terrors.
While Michael Vick was officially outracing his past Monday night, one of the dogs he abused cannot.
“Some people wonder, are we ever going to let Michael Vick get beyond all this?” said Richard Hunter, who owns Mel. “I tell them, let’s let Mel decide that. When he stops shaking, maybe then we can talk.”
I know, I know, this is a cheap and easy column, right? One day after the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback officially becomes an American hero again, just call the owner of one of the dogs who endured Vick’s unspeakable abuse and let the shaming begin.
Compare Vick’s 413 total yards, four touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns against the Washington Redskins to the 47 pit bulls who were seized from Bad Newz Kennels, his interstate dogfighting ring. Contrast one of the best three hours by a quarterback ever to the 21 months he spent in prison.
Cheap and easy, right? Not so fast. Vick’s success is raising one of the most potentially costly and difficult perceptual questions in the history of American sports.
If he continues playing this well, he could end up as the league’s most valuable player. In six games, he has thrown for 11 touchdowns, run for four more touchdowns, committed zero turnovers and produced nearly 300 total yards per game. Heck, at this rate, with his Eagles inspired by his touch, he could even win a Super Bowl, one of the greatest achievements by an American sportsman.
And yet a large percentage of the population will still think Michael Vick is a sociopath. Many people will never get over Vick’s own admissions of unthinkable cruelty to his pit bulls — the strangling, the drowning, the electrocutions, the removal of all the teeth of female dogs who would fight back during mating.
Some believe that because Vick served his time in prison, he should be beyond reproach for his former actions. Many others believe that cruelty to animals isn’t something somebody does, it’s something somebody is.
Essentially, an ex-convict is dominating America’s most popular sport while victims of his previous crime continue to live with the brutality of that crime, and has that ever happened before?
Do you cheer the player and boo the man? Can you cheer the comeback while loathing the actions that necessitated the comeback? And how can you do any of this while not knowing if Vick has truly discovered morality or simply rediscovered the pocket?
If you are Richard Hunter, you just don’t watch football.
“When you look at Mel,” said Hunter, a radio personality from Dallas, “you just don’t think about how Michael Vick is a great football player.”
A couple of years ago, Hunter and his wife Sunny were watching a documentary on Best Friends Animal Society, the Utah sanctuary where the court sent 22 of Vick’s 44 seized dogs. It was after 1 a.m. when the show featured a Vick victim that had been so badly abused, it refused to move, behaving as if paralyzed.
“My wife said, ‘Get out of bed, get on the computer and e-mail those people, I want one of those dogs,’ ” Hunter recalled.
Nearly 18 months later, they became one of six people to adopt one of the dogs. The process included a home visit by caseworkers, an extended visit to the southwest Utah sanctuary, home monitoring by a dog trainer and a six-month probation period.
“These dogs were scarred in many ways both emotional and physical,” said John Polis, Best Friends spokesman. “It was something we had never really seen before.”
Hunter and his wife quickly saw Mel’s scars. The dog wouldn’t bark, wouldn’t show affection, and would spend nearly an hour shaking with each new person who tried to touch him.
It turns out that Mel had been a bait dog, thrown into the ring as a sort of sparring partner for the tougher dogs, sometimes even muzzled so he wouldn’t fight back, beaten daily to sap his will. Mel was under constant attack, and couldn’t fight back, and the deep cuts were visible on more than just his fur.
“You could see that Michael Vick went to a lot of trouble to make Mel this way,” Hunter said. “When people pet him, I tell them, pet him from under his chin, not over his head. He lives in fear of someone putting their hand over his head.”
On Monday night, no, Mel was not hanging out by the televised football game. He was hanging on his owner’s bed as they watched something on HBO.
“How can you support football when you know one of their stars did this to a dog?” Hunter said. “If more people saw Mel at the same time as they saw Michael Vick, he wouldn’t be so lauded.”
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the lessons learned from Vick’s crimes were on display in a postgame quote from Eagles star receiver DeSean Jackson.
“We were like pit bulls ready to get out of the cage,” he told reporters.
Cheap and easy, huh?