Dungy’s support would help Vick enormously, given Dungy’s standing in football and as a careful broker in the reclamation of troubled souls: When Tony Dungy speaks, we all listen. He’s someone who believes in his own feel for others. “The look in his eyes,” Dungy says of Vick, was what told him. “When I heard him say—sincerely say—that he wanted to be a better person.”
That was an opinion Andy Reid could take to Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and team president Joe Banner when he first made his push to sign Vick in the summer of 2009.
Vick’s new teammates accepted him immediately. First off, Michael Vick is athletic royalty. (Big-league baseball players just voted him the player from another sport who’d be best at playing theirs.) But he showed up at camp, two summers ago, humble, the onetime first pick of the draft willing to join the Eagles as their third-string quarterback. There was another reason he earned respect right away, on a team with plenty of players from rough circumstances. “He had done something we hadn’t—served time,” says Sheldon Brown, then an Eagles cornerback. “That was like, in the locker room, Wow.”
The reaction to Vick’s signing was intense. During his first season, there were protesters at the Linc holding signs portraying fighting dogs with their faces chewed off. Endless radio and online chatter about what a horrible human being Vick must be. At the end of the season, his teammates voted him winner of the Ed Block Courage Award—given to one player on each NFL team. Which, of course, merely fueled the anti-Vick sentiment. Courage? It takes courage to kill dogs?
His teammates saw something else. “He was in prison for two years, then came back to football,” tight end Brent Celek says. “I couldn’t do that. And the guy never complained about anything. Never.”
Early on post-Leavenworth, two projects simultaneously scored PR points and raised questions. Vick started working with Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society, to speak to kids about the evils of dogfighting. Pacelle took heat for partnering with an animal abuser, but through Vick he could reach kids from the inner city, where dogfighting is rampant. Tuesdays—those used to be the days, when Vick played for the Falcons, that he’d fly home from Atlanta and get some dogfighting action. Tuesday now became the day to visit schools. Pacelle estimates Vick has talked to more than 10,000 kids at this point.
Yet given the brutality of what Vick had done, when he addressed dogfighting, his remorse had better be palpable. It never was. He was saying the right things, but not in the right way.