Old Friend Helps Vick Make New Start
PHILADELPHIA - Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb trotted the entire width of the field, tossing the football back and forth as a warm-up exercise before Saturday's practice at the Philadelphia Eagles headquarters. It was a fitting precursor.
Within the first half-hour of Vick's first practice, McNabb, the established face of the franchise and all-pro quarterback, patiently demonstrated techniques for his pivot on a play-action screen pass for the new understudy who seemed eager to take in every word.
Vick stayed near McNabb's hip during his debut practices during the weekend. They chatted when A.J. Feely took turns running the offense, between drills, during water breaks. After the debut practice, McNabb hung around as Vick took in earfuls from position coach James Urban.
This is the beginning of the rest of Vick's football life, a second chance supplied in the face of much "soul-searching," in the words of Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, after the former No. 1 overall pick served 20 months for his role in a dogfighting ring. In partially reinstating him to the NFL last month, Commissioner Roger Goodell mandated that Vick establish a mentoring relationship with former coach Tony Dungy - who has done outreach to prison inmates and will have input as full reinstatement is weighed.
Now Vick, 29, has another mentor in McNabb, who once hosted Vick as a high school star on a recruiting trip to Syracuse but more recently lobbied the Eagles to sign a friend trying to put his life and career back on track.
"Nobody's perfect, and that's including myself," says McNabb, 32, a married father of three. "I'm looking to just show him kind of how I prepare, show him me getting here at 6:30 in the morning, working out in the morning, getting your body ready to go, getting ready for meetings and then staying until 6, 6:30, to watch film. Then let him know exactly what I do at home or to just kind of get away from football and get my mind focused on the next day and spending time with family."
Sure enough, Vick arrived at NovaCare Complex before 7 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. While such a regimen might seem expected for a player at the game's most important position, that certainly was not part of Vick's pattern during his seven seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
Although the Falcons rewarded Vick with a 10-year, $130 million contract in 2004 - $70 million of which was forfeited, in addition to tens of millions of dollars in endorsements lost, after his legal issues began when ties to the dogfighting ring surfaced in April 2007 - he contrasted the image of a dedicated professional.
That Vick might leave the Falcons complex and play video games for several hours with friends was one of several clues about his lifestyle.
"I was lazy," Vick conceded in an interview with James Brown for 60 Minutes that aired Sunday evening. "You know, I was the last guy in the building, the first guy out. I know that. You know, I hear everything that people say. And that hurt me when I heard that, but I know it was true."
Still Vick made three Pro Bowl appearances during that time.
Eagles coaches and players and observers agree that one of the best ways McNabb can influence Vick is by serving as a model of professionalism.
"Whatever Michael Vick does further in his career will trace back to this," says Garry Cobb, a former NFL linebacker who hosts a sports talk show on WIP-AM in Philadelphia. "Donovan feels like he's been through some unique things. Michael has been through some things."
McNabb has been a huge target throughout his 11-year career, with the fire beginning with a rabid fan base in a city that seeps sports passion. It started the moment the Eagles drafted McNabb with the second pick overall in 1999. Fans booed.
McNabb also was a target in 2003, when Rush Limbaugh opined that liberal news outlets wanted him to succeed because he is African American.
Then there was Terrell Owens. McNabb lobbied to obtain the wide receiver in 2004, but it blew up when Owens - ultimately suspended and released - publicly feuded with him.
McNabb's future seemed in doubt in November when a week after he admitted he didn't know the rules for overtime he was benched for Kevin Kolb during a loss at the Baltimore Ravens.
Through each of the incidents, McNabb seemed unflappable.
"He's not as sensitive as some people make him out to be," says Fletcher Smith, McNabb's agent. "If he were, he wouldn't have survived 11 seasons."
Smith, like McNabb a Chicago native, says Vick stands to benefit more from McNabb's personal traits than anything.
"Michael Vick is already a great player," Smith says. "His rehab is more about the person."
In the days before Vick was signed to a two-year contract worth nearly $7 million - with the $5.2 million due in 2010 hinging on whether the Eagles exercise an option in March to retain him - McNabb was excited by the prospects, Smith says.
During Vick's fall from grace, McNabb says he didn't abandon his friend. He kept in touch with Vick throughout the ordeal.
"You don't know what people were going through or what was their mind-set," McNabb says of his initial reaction to learning of Vick's role in the dogfighting ring. "I had an opportunity to talk to him. A lot of times we make too many assumptions without talking to them to find out exactly what happened. We had great conversations and will continue to have great conversations."
Much to prove
Vick's issues are unlike anything McNabb has faced. The nature of his crime, which included killing and maiming dogs, has made him arguably the NFL's most polarizing figure. Results from a poll at Philly.com indicated fans were nearly split on whether the Eagles should have signed him.
In sealing the deal, Lurie was swayed by Goodell and McNabb, among others, before signing off on what he termed a counterintuitive move. Lurie also met privately for hours Thursday with Vick, who has language written into his contract as all Eagles players have to appear at community-service events.
Vick has aligned himself with the Humane Society of the United States, committing to participate in hands-on educational outreach projects.
"I think he deserves that opportunity," says Lurie, a self-described dog lover. "He's going to have to prove it in actions."
Said Vick in his news conference Friday: "I was wrong for what I did. Everything that happened at that point and time in my life was wrong and unnecessary. And, to the life of me to this day, I can't understand why I was involved in such a pointless activity and why I risked so much at the pinnacle of my career. I was naive to a lot of things. But I figure if I can help more animals than I hurt, then I am contributing, I am doing my part."
In addition to his felony conviction for dogfighting, Vick - engaged to Kijafa Frink and the father of three young children - also is in the process of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Dungy says he'll be available for the long haul - something he stressed during a visit last month to Vick's home in Hampton, Va.
"It has to start with decision-making from him," Dungy says. "Those are the calls he's going to have to make, understanding where to be, who to be with and who not to be with."
Vick, once regarded as perhaps the NFL's most exciting player because his speed came with a rocket arm, is seemingly accepted in the locker room.
"He's an Eagle now," says wide receiver Kevin Curtis, a seventh-year pro. "He's one of us."
Vick (6-0, 215) has made a strong first impression. At one point in Saturday's practice, he completed long, arching TD passes of about 50 yards on three consecutive reps in a drill matching the wide receivers against single cornerback coverage.
As he watched from the sideline, former linebacker Ike Reese, an ex-Eagle who played with Vick in Atlanta, marveled, "Prettiest deep ball in the league. Still."