Michael Vick's lessons for Big Ben
There's a pretty convincing mountain of evidence that athletes are no different from politicians, rock stars, teachers, bankers, pancake house waitresses, you, me, your neighbor Vinny, and possibly everyone sitting under lock and key right now at Rikers Island when it comes to this: We all tend not to learn enough from each other's mistakes and triumphs. We just don't.
So maybe it's wishful thinking to imagine that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has spent his four-game NFL suspension diligently taking notes on Michael Vick's career renaissance, now that Roethlisberger is the next athlete coming down the disgrace-to-"redemption" conveyor belt and is about to get spat back into public life.
Vick's comeback with the Philadelphia Eagles isn't some redemption story as much as it's a case study about being a star interrupted or, more accurately, a man gone overboard. And the same is true of Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion-turned-recovering lout who will report back to work Monday to a Pittsburgh team that could be 4-0 without him if it beats division archrival Baltimore on Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers' startling success -- one and a half games of it achieved with fourth-string quarterback Charlie Batch -- has led to a spate of taunting headlines such as "Ben Who?"
The idea that either Vick or Roethlisberger could take a hiatus from the NFL and return to his previous level of play isn't all that outrageous considering how good they were. But the possibility that either of them could change substantially as human beings -- at least enough to limbo under the low-hanging bar of not getting in trouble again -- now, that's where their stories intersect and get interesting.
There's a lot Roethlisberger could learn from Vick's resurrection -- starting with how to deal with success on the field and contempt caused by missteps off it.
Both Vick and Roethlisberger have blamed the onset of fame, stardom and money at too young an age for distorting them. That old lament. It's still too soon to say with complete confidence that Vick has made genuine and wholesale change as a person just because he's now 2-0 and has wrested the quarterback job from planned Philadelphia starter Kevin Kolb heading into Sunday's game against the Redskins and ex-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. (McNabb is making his first return to Philly since the Eagles traded him to Washington. His rap sheet includes only failing to win the Eagles a Super Bowl.)
But what Roethlisberger could crib from Vick already is Vick's striking comportment through it all. Because Vick has been damn near pitch perfect the past four weeks.
The better things have gone, the more Vick has seemed to stay the same: Low-key. Gratified, but not giddy. Humble and still preaching perspective. The cheering for Vick has gotten louder and louder, yet Vick still never acts as if all is forgiven.
So far, anyway, Vick is behaving like a guy who's been through hell and doesn't want to go back. He talks about leading a "zero-tolerance life." He has confessed to feeling nervous, vulnerable, remorseful and grateful to the Eagles, who didn't begrudge him this second chance.
On the field, Vick is again the most electrifying player in the NFL. But off the field, it's as if there's this palpable melancholy that Vick carries around with him now, and it tinges his voice in conversation, seems to limit how much he allows himself to smile even when talking about how unexpectedly "great" this season is turning out. The emotion he throws off isn't over-the-top joy as much as utter relief. Considering what he was convicted of, Vick deserves no medals for this. But it beats staying the man he was.
Vick has often said he always thought he could lead a team again, but he wasn't sure anyone would ever give him another opportunity. That's a roundabout way of acknowledging this: Who has ever trusted the keys of a billion-dollar NFL franchise to a convicted felon who nearly sank his previous team?
"I needed to change my life," Vick said again this week.
Roethlisberger has uttered the same words.
But does he mean it?
Even before the second sexual assault accusation against him, this one by a 20-year-old college student who told police Roethlisberger might have raped her in the bathroom of a bar, Roethlisberger had run afoul of friends, teammates, coaches and peers around the league. Once that allegation became public, other ugly stories bubbled up. People said that by the time he won one Super Bowl, then another, Roethlisberger had become a swaggering, increasingly stuck-up boor, a coarse man who could turn ugly when drinking, a faux team leader who was aloof and disliked even in his own locker room. A story even ricocheted around Pittsburgh about how octogenarian golf legend Arnold Palmer dressed Roethlisberger down for behaving badly at a local country club.
Roethlisberger now admits that even his close-knit family had become put off by him.
"My dad said to me about a month ago, 'It's good to have my son back,'" Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh TV station WTAE in April. "That killed me because my dad's been my best friend. For him to say that to me really let me know I wasn't who he raised me to be."
It was one of the few extended interviews Roethlisberger gave before he began serving his NFL suspension, and he often sounded as if some negative spell had been broken.
Of course, the interview was set up by a public relations handler who no doubt prepped Roethlisberger.
The piece was aired one day after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released 60 audio and video clips associated with its 500-page investigation.
Remember, too, that quarterbacks are reared to take the blame for everything without letting it have a dampening effect on their egos. So, again, we'll see.
Already, the Steelers are bracing for the swarm of attention that will follow Roethlisberger's return Monday. Linebacker James Harrison has already growled that he doesn't want Roethlisberger seen as some one-man team who will save them.
The idea that almost any failing is forgotten in sports as long as a player performs well on the field is hardly some new Faustian bargain.
But if that's all Vick and Roethlisberger re-discover after all that has happened, they won't have learned much of anything.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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