Is Michael Vick For Real?

After astonishing everyone with the way he played last season, he seems to be all the way back—with a lock on the Eagles quarterback job, a new autobiography and a new multimillion-dollar Nike deal. So why does it still feel like we'll never really know him?

But has he really changed? All along, as Michael Vick has come back from an 18-month prison term for operating a brutal dog-fighting enterprise in Virginia, that’s what we’ve wondered. The guy who personally hung underperforming dogs, who beat them to death—is he horrified by that person now, his old self?

Vick has been doing, and saying, the right things. And last season, when an injury to quarterback Kevin Kolb made him the starter, he didn’t just play well, spectacularly well; there was something more. It was the way his teammates followed him. It leaped right into our living rooms: This guy was the leader.

Still: It’s hard to see behind the tinted visor of his helmet. Behind the impassive face. And if you happen to watch a YouTube clip of him giving a talk advising kids not to get into dogfighting, you wonder what’s behind that. He’s inscrutable. Saying the right things, but without feeling. We want heart-on-his-sleeve remorse. We want the big-eyed openness and hurt and longing of Allen Iverson, who happens to hail from Hampton, the town next to the awful stomping ground—Newport- News, Virginia—that bred Michael Vick.

We don’t get passion from him. So is he really a changed man? Or is it his circumstances that have changed?

At the Camelot commencement—after bestowing $5,000 scholarships on two unsuspecting high achievers—Vick ends his speech. “Always remember this—it’s the journey. You have to travel to an extreme destination to get there.”

The crowd roars. But he’s still a mystery.

Then, a couple weeks later, in late June, Vick says I can come down to Hampton University, where he’s hosting a football camp for kids. That I can hang around, really talk to him. It’s an invitation I’ve been working on for six months.

TONY DUNGY, THE EX-COACH of the Indianapolis Colts who lost a teenage son to suicide and has mentored several athletes in trouble, visited Michael Vick in prison in 2008. They talked about Vick’s life, about family, about God—not much about football. Something had impressed Dungy when word circulated he was heading to Leavenworth to see Vick. He got eight or 10 calls from Vick’s old Falcons teammates, all saying the same thing: Hey, give Mike my number. Tell him I’m behind him—he’s a good guy.

To outsiders, that wasn’t always obvious. While Vick was with Atlanta, a woman claimed in a lawsuit, eventually settled out of court, that he had knowingly infected her with herpes and had sought treatment under the alias “Ron Mexico.” He was fined $10,000 by the NFL for giving booing Falcons fans the finger after a loss in ’06, and early the next year, Miami airport security confiscated a water bottle with a hidden compartment that they said smelled of marijuana. No drugs were found, and Vick claimed he used the compartment to stash jewelry.