Lately, for my own edification and in preparation for the upcoming NFL season, I’ve been reading through the King James Bible. I hope to finish the New Testament before pro football’s opening day on Thursday, September 10, when the title-defending Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Tennessee Titans in an explosion of hype, sound effects, fireworks, and very large men tackling each other. I’m in the middle of the Gospel According to Matthew now; Jesus just helped a deaf man hear again by putting his fingers in the man’s ears. I wonder what Fox Sports commentator Troy Aikman would say about that?
Although football season hasn’t officially started yet, the behind-the-game storylines are already irresistible. Really, from the standpoint of extracurricular drama, this may be the best NFL preseason of all time. For instance, there’s the retirement of iconic gridiron analyst John Madden, a force in sports entertainment for over 30 years. Also there’s the re-entry (or re-re-entry, technically) of Brett Favre, the 39-year-old veteran who has tearfully retired from the game twice only to run screaming back toward the spotlight both times. Most compellingly, former star quarterback Michael Vick is back in the league after serving an 18-month jail term. Once a Falcon, Vick will now be a member of the Philadelphia Eagles—he has a penchant for bird-themed franchises—and according to this recent 60 Minutes interview, Vick has found religion. His faith is what got him through prison, he claims. And I wonder if he’s telling the truth.
A couple years ago, after Vick (then the NFL’s highest-paid player) was caught financing and participating in a dog-fighting ring, I was so sickened by the news I stopped watching football. I knew the NFL’s culture of violence, its deification of callow young men, had contributed to Vick’s willing cruelty. I figured he might come back to the NFL someday, but I never thought about how his return would be choreographed. And I never thought I’d find myself rooting for him.
Reading the gospels has made me think about the impact storytelling can have on a legacy. Jesus is a great character, more a man of action than I remembered—he heals a lot of sick people, and he has this cool way of multiplying a single loaf of bread so that everybody can nosh a little. Jesus sails a lot, kind of like a Kennedy. He’s a complicated hero, righteous but impatient, generous and sharp-tongued all at once. But the most fun thing about reading the New Testament, at least for me, is thinking about how Jesus, through the magic of mythology, went from charismatic rabbi to Marvel Superhero. His teachings and actions were embellished upon, his legend was spread, and gradually the story got stranger and better.
The story of Michael Vick’s return to football, on the other hand, is being sculpted not by believers but by a team of attorneys and PR magicians hell-bent on rehabbing the young man’s injured image. Instead of getting more complicated Vick’s story is getting more predictable. For example, to repair the wrongs he committed, the 29-year-old semi-retired ex-con quarterback has become a spokesman for the Humane Society. I struggle to believe Vick performs this role with any real feeling. But Vick seems to understand that his career now depends on selling a tale—one about seeing the light, feeling others’ pain, learning about stewardship of animals. Unlike the multi-perspective gospels, Vick’s story is being narrowed down, shaped into a single unified perspective, one designed to meet skepticism with curt propriety.
In a preseason game on Thursday night, Vick was greeted warmly by Eagles fans. He went 4 for 4 in limited action during the game. Not brilliant, but intriguing. Now that he’s a free man I want to believe Vick’s remorse. And I have to say, I think maybe Jesus would believe—not in the words coming out of Vick’s mouth, the sound-bites he’s clearly been coached to say, but in the real shame and humility the fallen man has most likely learned in the past year and a half. The 60 Minutes segment showed Vick speaking to a crowd of students about the importance of loving dogs and cats and reptiles, and I didn’t believe any of it—it sounded absolutely canned. But when Vick took the field in his new Eagles uniform, the white wings painted onto his green helmet looked like a vehicle of hope, something this football player has probably earned.