A tale of two troubled quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick are leading parallel NFL lives this year
They are so different, their personal histories so starkly in contrast. One is black, born and raised in the crime-ridden, East End projects of Newport News, Va. The other is white, raised in the quiet, midwest town of Findlay, Ohio.
And yet, Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger find themselves Velcro'd together by a series of coincidences, by personal and professional redemption and maybe -- just maybe -- by forgiveness.
Both play quarterback for NFL teams in Pennsylvania. Both wear No. 7. Both have made nine starts this season and both have seven wins to show for them. Both have their teams atop their respective divisions.
But it isn't just the present that binds Vick and Roethlisberger. It's their pasts and the transgressions they committed in those pasts.
Vick served 18 months in federal prison for his prominent role in a dogfighting ring. It was a crime against innocents, and the public backlash was as strong as a garlic Altoid. For some (hello, Nils Lofgren), it remains that way.
Roethlisberger didn't serve jail time, but allegations of sexual assault led to a humiliating investigation by Georgia prosecutors. Criminal charges weren't filed, but that didn't stop NFL commissioner Roger Goodell from suspending the two-time Super Bowl champion for at least four games without pay, ordering a "comprehensive behavioral evaluation" and, in essence, subjecting him to a public intervention for his misconduct. He still faces a civil lawsuit over an earlier incident.
And now here they are, their personal lives glued back together and their professional lives enjoying a football renaissance. Vick's Philadelphia Eagles are 9-4 and tied for the NFC East lead with the New York Giants. Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers are 10-3 and lead the AFC North.
When the season began, Vick was nothing more than a backup to Kevin Kolb. He was destined for another year of Wildcat gimmickry and cooling his cleats on the sideline. He was a safety net, an afterthought.
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger technically didn't exist to the Steelers. He couldn't practice with the team during his Goodell-imposed exile. It wasn't until Sept. 3, just nine days before the team's season opener, that he learned he'd make his 2010 regular season debut in the Oct. 17 home game against Cleveland.
Vick and Roethlisberger are changed men. Vick lost his freedom, his fortune and his job with the Atlanta Falcons. Roethlisberger lost a reputation, his captaincy and a quarter of a season, as well as nearly $2 million.
But are they changed for the better? Just because they're winning games doesn't automatically make them better people. And what if the Eagles and Steelers were in the dumper? Would the Dallas Cowboys' Tashard Choice still ask Vick to autograph a glove? Would Steelers fans feel the same way about Roethlisberger?
Vick is definitely a better quarterback after nearly a four-year gap between NFL starts. He is more disciplined, more patient, more willing to work on his football flaws. And while it might sound simplistic, those are the same reasons I think Vick has become a better person.
He had it all. And then he had nothing. Had he not changed -- and it's still an evolving process -- Vick would still have nothing. He wouldn't be earning rave reviews from his coaches, his teammates and even the federal judge who sentenced him to prison. He wouldn't be in the MVP discussion.
Roethlisberger had those two Super Bowl rings, but there was also a contrail of troubling allegations and unflattering cell phone photos. He had lost touch with who he was and how he was raised.
The Steelers kicked the tires on a trade but decided to stick with Roethlisberger. So did teammates such as Hines Ward, who, on the first day of practice at training camp, told Roethlisberger, "Let's walk out together." The gesture meant everything to the shamed quarterback.
Roethlisberger has always been tough (he's playing with an injured foot and a surgically repaired nose behind a suspect offensive line), but he hasn't always been smart. He's smarter now, say those who know him, and wiser too.
But this isn't about learning lessons. It's about learning respect. For animals. For women. For yourself.
You can't do what Vick and Roethlisberger are doing without undergoing some sort of fundamental, inner self reckoning. You can't fake this sort of seismic change.
They aren't perfect, but they're different from what they were. They're better people, better teammates and better role models. Not "Be Like Me" role models, but "Learn From My Mistakes" role models.
We saw the rise of Vick and Roethlisberger. We saw the freefall. The crater marks they made when they landed were as wide as Heinz Field.
If you believe in second chances, then it's OK to believe that Vick and Roethlisberger have taken advantage of their mulligans. It's OK to believe that football, friends, jail, suspensions and mentors can make a true difference.
Most of us have forgiven them. But it's up to Vick and Roethlisberger, not us, to remember why there was a fall in the first place.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.