One quarterback stood among a pack of reporters and talked of kayaking and arm strength. The topics were banal, but there was something profoundly different about him. The smirk was gone. The eff-you eye roll, once ever-present, wasn’t flashed once. He smiled. A lot. It was almost…weird.
The other quarterback, a few hundred miles away, stood near a pack of reporters and spoke of throwing mechanics and go routes. But there was something profoundly different about him too. Stress and concussions have worn down a once impregnable shield of arrogance. Since then, like the other quarterback, he’s transformed into something better. He now speaks of love for football, not love of himself. It was almost…weird.
We were used to Ben Roethlisberger being this way: brash, arrogant, reckless.
We were used to Michael Vick being this way: brash, arrogant, reckless.
We’re now used to a different reality. Both men have utilized the passage of time, and a discipline they didn’t display in past years, to alter our opinions of them. Sure, some will never change their minds, but Vick and Roethlisberger are no longer the Vick and Roethlisberger we once knew.
The interesting part isn’t that the two men changed. It’s that they apparently stayed changed.
It’s dangerous territory to say two of the most polarizing players in all of sports have made a permanent change for the better. They fooled us once. Could it be happening again? By all indications, the change is sincere.
What both players have seemingly done is something that’s difficult for many human beings to truly accomplish. They have used past brushes with disgrace as tools for betterment.
And because their personal lives aren’t filled with the noise of disrepair, their professional lives are prospering. It’s quite possible we will never see Roethlisberger and Vick better than they are now.
Their respective cases have long tested the limits of athlete forgiveness. People have waited—and waited, and waited—for both men to screw up again. I know I have. I never thought Roethlisberger or Vick would be able to stay off the police blotter for this extended period of time.
To me, this indicates real personal change. Others will never see it that way. Athlete forgiveness is in the eye of the beholder.
Roethlisberger was accused multiple times of sexual assault, one instance leading to a six-game suspension (later reduced to four games). He’s been accused even more times of first-degree douchebaggery, but clearly he isn’t that guy any longer. Slowly but surely, he has regained his foothold as a locker room leader while marriage and fatherhood have made him more responsible.
“Ben is one of the great guys I’ve ever been around,” said his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. “He’s the consummate pro.”
Vick served time in federal prison for dog fighting and became as notorious as Al Capone. When Vick was in Atlanta, he abhorred studying film and was the last to arrive at the team facility and the first to leave. All of that is reversed now.
“He does everything that’s asked of him and more,” said coach Chip Kelly.
The evolution of Vick as a player and human being may not have reached its apex, but it’s close.
“I’m having fun playing football. I fell in love with the game again, and I am thankful for that,” Vick told Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
They once dominated a news cycle for all the wrong reasons. They were once despised more than Alex Rodriguez, if that’s possible. Allegations of sexual assault and the killing of dogs for gambling and profit—it doesn’t get much worse than that.
Thus to some, even now, years later, “Roethlisberger” and “likable” could never be in the same sentence. And this isn’t to say that Roethlisberger is suddenly cute and snuggly; he isn’t. But he clearly is no longer the horse’s ass he once was.
“My impression of Ben,” Haley said at Steelers camp recently, “is he’s worked hard to change his life, and he’s been very successful at doing that.”
There are well-chronicled examples of how Roethlisberger used to behave. He wasn’t always the most popular guy in the Steelers locker room due to his arrogance. There were also the horrible rape accusations. One, which allegedly took place in a Georgia bar, didn’t lead to formal charges, but it did lead to the wrath of commissioner Roger Goodell.
When suspending Roethlisberger, the commissioner wrote (via ESPN):
I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you. … That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.
The change started with marriage and fatherhood and carried onto the field. Last year, it seemed after constantly bumping heads with Haley, Roethlisberger was perhaps back to the arrogant player of old.
Then, in another sign of maturity, Roethlisberger reached out to Haley during the offseason, and the two reached a detente. Haley said the two have been close ever since and even spent some time together watching Shark Week.
“Ben just needed to get to know me, and me him,” said Haley. “I don’t know about the so-called ‘old Ben.’ I just know Ben now. He’s a great leader and a great quarterback. He’s also a good person. That’s all I see.”
Another day, another Eagles practice, and Vick is staying late.
Vick always stays at the Eagles’ complex late. This is what a quarterback and leader is supposed to do, but it’s not always what Vick has done.
To say that just because Vick now practices hard means he’s a changed man would be silly. It is, however, an indicator.
The Vick we’re seeing now is different, vastly different, from the dog-fighting Vick.
I’ve covered him since he came into the league and interviewed him one-on-one, and there’s little question he wasn’t a hard worker and relied strictly on his talent. He’s admitted that until recently he rarely studied film, and I can tell you there were Atlanta coaches incredibly frustrated by that.
Vick was lazy and uncaring, and now he’s neither. Federal prison will indeed change a man’s outlook. Soon after he was named the starter, Vick said he was going to work harder than ever because he didn’t want to let his teammates down.
“It would be a shame if I let up right now,” Vick told Martin Frank of USA Today. “It would be selfish to myself and to my teammates.”
The old Vick, the organized-crime Vick, he wouldn’t have given a crap about his teammates. This Vick does and has for some time.
Where Roethlisberger and Vick go from here is, of course, not known. Maybe this is a great scam and neither man has truly changed for the long term.
Or maybe it’s real.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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