PHILADELPHIA — Nike released its first version of Zoom Vick cleats in 2003.
“I wore his cleats in middle school, man,” Eagles rookie safety Earl Wolff said.
DeMeco Ryans had some Vick footwear, too. So imagine Ryans’ delight when, as soon as his trade from Houston became public in 2012, he got a ring from No. 7.
“He was the first guy from the Eagles to call me when I got traded,” Ryans said. “I was, like, ‘It’s pretty cool to be getting a call from Mike Vick.’ “
For a generation of football players, Vick represented the Ultimate Weapon. No quarterback except Randall Cunningham approached Vick’s combination of open-field running ability with a thunderbolt arm.
That’s why, with an air of melancholy, players gathered around Vick’s locker to watch him clean it out, likely for the last time as an Eagle. They approached sheepishly, asking for autographs, shaking hands.
LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson, the freakishly talented duo left to spearhead the Birds’ offense, hung around for 10 minutes. Jackson even asked a team rep to take a photo of himself, Vick and Mychal Kendricks.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Jackson said.
Vick, 33, will be a free agent in a few weeks. He injured his hamstring in Game 5 this season and lost the starting job to Nick Foles, a second-year marksman who led the league in passer rating.
That’s OK by Vick. He can leave Philadelphia. His resurrection is complete.
In 2009, after 19 months behind bars, Vick was released from federal prison for running a dogfighting and gambling ring in Virginia. The conviction ended Vick’s employment in Atlanta, where he vaulted to great fame, if not great success. It cost him two seasons.
The release began Vick’s run as the most polarizing athlete in Philadelphia history. He ascended from ex-con backup to $100 million man; then, this season, back to backup. He called the experience “surreal,” and it was; always, with a hint of malice.
Some animal-rights groups and animal lovers found Vick’s torture and training of fighting dogs unforgivable. Some Eagles fans abandoned the team; at least, for as long as he was on it.
They can return.
Monday likely ended Vick’s run in Philadelphia. He would not rule out returning as Foles’ backup, but, given the dearth of quality passers in the NFL, Vick is sure to get a shot at a starting spot.
Not everyone wants that. The New York Times on Sunday ran a column warning NFL teams against hiring an animal killer, regardless of how reformed.
“I’ve always tried to make amends for the things that I’ve done,” Vick said. “Some people are going to forgive you. Some people aren’t.”
He understands the unforgiving. He understands his image; how onlookers were eager to believe Vick had a hand in the 2010 shooting of an old acquaintance after the acquaintance insulted Vick at a party in Virginia; how analysts gleefully (and accurately) note Vick’s shortcomings as a passer.
He understands that no amount of charity work or contributions or campaigning could expunge his record or mitigate his sins; that, even though he fully repaid his creditors to erase his financial bankruptcy, his moral debt remains.
And he understands he can do no more.
“I am proud of the things I’ve done, especially off the field — that supersedes everything,” Vick said. “It was one of the things I set as a high goal coming out of prison.”
The football stuff just happened.
Thanks to his rebirth in Philadelphia, Vick is the all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks in a game, in a season and in a career, and the only one with 20,000 passing yards and 5,000 rushing yards. Only Vick and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young have passed for 3,000 yards, have run for 500 yards and have accrued a passer rating of at least 100 in a season. Vick did it in 2010, 18 years after Young. Vick did it with the Eagles.
Vick was, at times, excellent, especially behind a decent offensive line. He was, at times, ordinary, usually behind a compromised line. He had little peace entering any of his five years as an Eagle: his first, a wildcat sideshow; his second, a backup to Kevin Kolb, whose job Vick stole; his third and fourth, part of Andy Reid’s meltdowns; his fifth, a pay-cut starter in a new system for a new coach.
“I love Michael Vick,” said coach Chip Kelly, who gave Vick’s job to Foles, then watched as Vick helped Foles blossom. “That guy is awesome. I appreciate everything he did my first year here.”
Generally, that’s what Vick did every year. Always inclusive, matured by prison, Vick served as a rock in the locker room. He defused the Riley Cooper situation. He is DeSean Jackson’s official handler.
He is just another man-at-arms in a room where he could act like a king.
“You show up here the first day and you say, ‘Aw man, that’s Michael Vick!’ “ Wolff said. “After a couple of weeks went by, you realize he’s a humble guy. Speaks to you every day. He’s always bigger than the situation.”
“He was just the opposite of what everybody on the outside has to say about him,” Ryans said. “He’s not like the typical high-profile quarterback who’s quick to get out of the locker room, not hang with his teammates, not talk to anybody.”
Asked why he treats people as well as he does, Vick replied, hopefully:
“Because I’m a good man.”
Maybe he is.