In Ron Howard’s vehicle Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe stars as Jim Braddock,a down-and-out boxer during the Great Depression who like much of America hadhit rock bottom. On the precipice of his comeback fight, a seeminglymismatched bout with an overpowering, younger and brazenly confidantMax Baer, the unflappable and endearing Jim Braddock is asked by areporter to explain his comeback. Braddock’s answer is simple andheartfelt. He responds, “I had a run of bad luck. And this time around,I know what I’m fighting for.” The reporter delves deeper with a follow up question,“Yeah? What’s that, Jimmy”. Braddock, with unnerving honesty, replies “Milk.” While this story is theconception of Californication “made in a Hollywood basement” (Reader’s Note: Red Hot Chili Peppers are wayunderrated), it sounds eerily familiar.A once great sports figure whose life is moving in reverse, from riches to rags. What sounds like a script written by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Blue Chips, Tin Cup)is the real life story of Michael Vick.Michael Vick was once a prodigy, a player of remarkably raw athletic talent that captured the attention of football fans everywhere as a freshman Virginia Tech quarterback with a passing and rushing one-two punch never before seen. Well, it had been seen. But no where near as remarkable,as exciting, as effective. Sure, there was Randall Cunningham, the late Steve McNair, the underrated running of Steve Young, Kordell Stewart, Aaron Brooks, and even Fran Tarkenton. But none had the speed and elusiveness, the arm power of Michael Vick. He finished third in the Heisman voting as a freshman and graced the Sports Illustrated cover with themoniker “Mr. Electric”, a caption on the cover reading“Why Michael Vick of Virginia Tech Has Sparked a Revolution at Quarterback”.His strong armed throws, blow-by-defenders speed, and Willie Beamen-esque (Any Given Sunday) moves made him a SportsCenter regular, they made him a star.The Atlanta Falcons drafted him number one overall in 2001 and he instantly became the face of a team and city searching for ascension to football relevancy three years after the “Dirty Bird” Falcons lost the Super Bowl. His slew of endorsements made him a fortune. And then, in 2005, he signed the richest deal in NFL history, a whopping 10 year, $130 million contract with $37 million in bonuses. What seems like a century ago happened less than half a decade ago.We all know what went awry. There were early signs ofimmaturity. Early signs of a coddled athlete uninterested inmaking sound choices. The 2004 arrest of two men in Virginiafor distributing marijuana while driving a truck registered toMichael Vick. A 2005 civil lawsuit alleging Vick knowinglygave a woman genital herpes and used the alias Ron Mexico attreatment centers. The 2006 loss to the Saints where Vick treatedheckling fans with two middle finger salutes. And then the strawthat broke the camel’s back. The 2007 arrest for owning and operatinga dog fighting ring. His repugnant actions dominated the headlines andshook the sports world. He was vilified by the media. Cursed by fans.Scorned by animal lovers. Practically crucified by PETA. Vick,once a NFL star was now the league’s pariah. Two years have pastsince then. Much has changed in Vick’s life. He has lost two yearsof his playing career and his life at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.A jail with a rich history of housing gangsters, notably George “Machine Gun” Kellyand George “Bugs” Moran. He has also filed for bankruptcy. The waterfallsof money now dried up.Michael Vick was in need of a second chance. And he partlyreceived it Monday, July 27 when he was conditionally reinstated inthe NFL. Conditional? Yes, Vick’s future and second chance in the NFLhinges on conditions set forth by Roger Goodell, the oft indecisivecommissioner of the NFL. What do the scales of justice mean anymorein this country? Not very much, at least to Goodell. After essentiallyserving a 32 game suspension in a 9’x9’ cell, a 4 to 6 game suspensionstill looms above Vick’s head. The man has had everything taken awayfrom him but his chance. He deserves a second chance. And Goodellstill wavers. He enjoys having his players dead-to-rights. In hisattempt to evade the luminous shadow of the greatest commish insports history so far, Paul Taglibue, Roger Goodell has createdhimself as a caricature, a bulldog hell bent on running the NFLlike a military academy. His reluctance to fully reinstate Vick isegregious. Has he not suffered enough? Maybe next to the Gene Upshawsticky on Vick’s helmet, Goodell can personally paint a Scarlett letter, as though the stigma of being a criminal is not humiliating enough. The support for Vick’s reinstatement from the universally esteemed Tony Dungy should be credence enough.What’s just as perplexing is that NFL teams are expressingdisinterest in Michael Vick. Why? It can’t be because of his legalpast. How many players in the NFL have a checkered history? Half theBengals roster does. What teams receive by signing Vick is a playerwith unusual motivation. Motivation surpassing probably any other playerin the league. He was once atop his game. He had it all. And now hehas nothing. Like Braddock, he knows what he’s playing for now. Notfor the women. Or the exotic luxury cars. Or the billboards with hisface adorning them, trying to hock a product to teenage boys and beerloving men. He’s fighting for “milk”. He’s fighting for a meal. He’sessentially fighting for his life. Michael Vick doesn’t have any skillsaway from throwing or running with a football. Like most star collegeplayers, he passed on a college degree for NFL riches. Not only wouldMichael Vick be motivated, but he could serve as a great mentor to youngplayers susceptible to the same pitfalls. And if not a mentor, then aposter child for prudence. The media, including pundits and sports experts, should put a halt to questions of whether he will be able to playafter such a layoff. Vick was once feared for his athletic prowess. Hedidn’t suffer an injury, at least not physical. The two seasons off do not affect his playmaking ability or his knowledge of the game. How do weknow? Muhammad Ali lost three plus years of boxing during the prime ofhis career after being convicted of refusing induction into the U.S. ArmedForces to fight in Vietnam. He regained his championship form notlong after returning to boxing. Michael Jordan’s premature firstretirement lasted nearly two years and he went on to win three morechampionships upon his return. This year, Lance Armstrong finishedthird overall in the Tour De France after nearly four years inretirement. If it was a player of less than great athletic proportions,then there would be validity for the argument, a cause for doubt.However, it’s Michael Vick. The same guy Sports Illustrated stated“has sparked a revolution at quarterback”. Still not convinced? Thenput it to the test. Sign Vick to the veteran’s minimum. The contract’snot guaranteed, thus nothing to lose. Just give the man a second chanceat the game. Don’t deny the player the opportunity to prove himself.To reinvent himself. To earn for himself.Michael Vick made an awful mistake and he’s paid an awful amount forit. It’s a hard fall from grace; dark, lonely and exhausting. And therocky road to return to grace is just as trying. Jim Braddock got hiscomeback fight, his second chance to be one of boxing’s best. Just asBraddock got the chance to rise from the bottom, so should Vick. MichaelVick deserves the opportunity to attempt it. He deserves the chanceto channel his inner Jim Braddock. He deserves the chance to fight forhis redemption. He deserves to be the Cinderella Man. It’s a clichéscript, but who doesn’t enjoy a Hollywood ending?
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