NFL: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick's journey from prison to pinnacle of his sport
The National Football League's most gripping season in years has come down to a single astonishing and deeply discomforting question: will its Most Valuable Player – and perhaps the architect of a Super Bowl victory – be a convicted felon?
No football writer could complain of an absence of storylines for 2010. The various NFL divisions are the most competitive and unpredictable in years. With owners and the players' union unable to agree on a new contract, a lockout looms. New medical evidence has forced the League to crack down on the violence that can cause devastating brain damage.
Then there is the sorry tale of Brett Favre, one of the greatest quarterbacks in history, who came back from retirement one time too many, and whose on-field decline has been matched by an alleged sex scandal off it. Nothing, however, matches the return of Michael Vick from a federal jail cell in Leavenworth, Kansas, to the pinnacle of his sport, in less than 18 short months.
In the summer of 2007 Vick, then quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, was arguably the most reviled individual in the land. He was about to be sentenced for operating an illegal dogfighting ring from his Bad Newz kennels in rural southern Virginia where he had grown up.
The press spared no detail of the repulsive cruelty inflicted on the animals, and the country collectively heaved "Good Riddance" when he was jailed for 23 months. His 10-year, $130m contract with the Falcons, then the richest in NFL history, was voided, and in 2008 Vick was forced to declare personal bankruptcy, with debts of more than $20m.
His career, his reputation and his prospects appeared destroyed – just one more spoilt and overpaid sports star who imagined that society's rules did not apply to him had bitten the dust. That argument, however, omits one thing. America is also a land of second chances, and Vick seized his with both hands.
When he emerged from prison in the summer of 2009, the Philadelphia Eagles were the only NFL franchise ready to take a chance on him. But a $1.5m one-year contract was hardly a ringing endorsement of a player seen only as cover for Eagles' established starting quarterback Donovan McNabb. And even many Eagles fans were upset by this embrace of a sinner. Slowly, however, views began to change, as the odd cameo moment off the bench reminded people of the talents that had persuaded Atlanta to lavish such riches upon Vick. The Eagles signed him for a second year in 2010, this time for $5m. But although McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins, Vick remained the back-up, this time to designated starter Kevin Kolb.
Then fate intervened. In the first game of the season, Kolb suffered a concussion. Vick took over and struck a vein of form that culminated in a performance against the Redskins on 15 November which left his most hardened critics grasping for superlatives.
That night, Philadelphia slaughtered Washington 59-28, the biggest road win in NFL history. Everyone knew that at his best Vick possessed a remarkable set of talents; an arm that could throw like a laser coupled with the speed and agility which matched that of any running back.
Against the Redskins and an awed McNabb, the passing and rushing games came together as never before. Not only did Vick throw for 333 yards for four touchdowns, he rushed for 80 yards, adding two touchdowns on his own account. The Boy's Own flavour of the evening was evident from Vick's very first play, an 88-yard touchdown pass.
When it was over, the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, requested his game jersey, to commemorate the first quarterback to throw three touchdowns and rush for two more in the first half of a game in which he was to all intents and purposes unplayable. Like a great performer at his peak in any sport, Vick made it look ridiculously easy, finding time and space where there seemed to be none.
On Sunday against the New York Giants, Vick was inevitably less dominant and less spectacular. Even so, he outduelled the redoubtable Eli Manning of the Giants in a 27-17 win that would have been larger, had not two of his receivers dropped touchdown passes.
He also showed he could take a hit, as the Giants blitzed him relentlessly. Nonetheless, Vick completed 24 of 38 passes for 258 yards, and rushed for 34 yards and a touchdown. The talk of MVP awards and a Super Bowl may be premature – before the start of the season Favre was supposed to be doing just that for the disintegrating Minnesota Vikings – but no one can dispute that the erstwhile dog fight organiser is right now the most electrifying performer in the League.
Which inevitably has led to much heart-searching, extending far beyond the sports columns and talk shows. Is Vick on the way to unmerited rehabilitation, thanks to a remarkable ability to throw touchdown passes that wipes out the memory of dreadful crimes?
Not at all, insist his growing band of defenders. Vick has paid his debt to society, they argue. His mentor is the former coach Tony Dungy, one of the most respected and beloved figures in the sport. The player himself appears genuinely contrite, visiting schools to warn young would-be emulators not to make the mistakes he did, and insisting that jail was the best thing that ever happened to him. "God can turn mistakes into miracles," he tweeted to his followers after the thrashing of the Redskins.
The truth though may be more complex. America loves comebacks and it loves winners. A year after his own fall from grace, Tiger Woods is making suitable noises of repentance. But nothing would do more for his popularity than a couple of majestic victories in the majors. So it goes for Vick. He has delivered a comeback, and winning performances for the ages. His transgressions have been temporarily forgotten, obliterated by the on-field heroics. But they may not have been forgiven.
Vick's turbulent life
Born 26 June 1980, Virginia.
1999 Led all college quarterbacks in passer rating at Virginia Tech.
2001 Turned pro and was taken as No 1 pick in NFL draft by Atlanta Falcons.
2002 Made 177 straight passes without an interception during the season. Selected for the first of three Pro Bowls.
2004 Signed a 10-year contract with the Falcons worth $130m, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL.
2005 Listed as No 33 in the Forbes list of most powerful celebrities.
2006 Fined $10,000 for gesturing a swear word at fans during defeat at New Orleans. Became the only quarterback in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards.
2007 A police search for illegal drugs produced evidence of dog-fighting activities at the back of his house. Pled guilty to being involved and was sentenced to up to 23 months in jail. While on bail, tested positive for marijuana. Turned himself in in November.
2008 Filed for bankruptcy.
2009 Released from prison in May. As a result of his probation he had to work as a labourer for a construction company for a month. Returned to the NFL in August and signed for the Philadelphia Eagles on a one-year deal.
November 2010 Against the Washington Redskins became the first player to throw for 300 yards, run for 50 yards, throw four passing touchdowns and rush for two touchdowns in a game.