KAPOLEI, Hawaii - The NFL surprised Michael Vick with the ultimate perk on Tuesday: the 4,200-square-foot presidential suite at the official hotel of the Pro Bowl. It was a reflection of just how far the player who used to be a pariah has come.
There are 86 players at the coastline resort on the west side of Oahu, the elitist of the NFL's elite, save for the six Green Bay Packers and four Pittsburgh Steelers who were invited but will be playing in the Super Bowl. As evidenced by his posh digs, Vick is hands-down the headliner.
He is the player all of the other Pro Bowlers want to see, and no one, regardless of the size of his traveling party, begrudged Vick the palatial suite.
"Mike Vick, yeah, I'm very happy for that guy," said Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who walked alongside his teammate back into the hotel after the NFC's morning practice. Both players were pulling black Nike roller bags full of swag, yet another perk for fulfilling their commitment and making the long trip from the East Coast to Hawaii.
"He's got a great opportunity to come out here and show everybody what he's capable of doing," Jackson added.
Not that there is any doubt any longer about what Vick can do. The question after this Eagles season is: Can Vick do what he does at a high level over a 16-game schedule? Can he withstand the punishment his fearless, aggressive style brings on and be as sharp, disciplined, and smart in December as he is in September?
Can Vick be patient and poised enough to make the winning throw in the playoffs, instead of leaving the ball short and inside? And can he lead the Eagles to a championship the city has craved for 50 years?
Time will tell whether he even gets the opportunity.
On Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players' union chief DeMaurice Smith traded barbs about lowering their salaries in the event of a lockout (Goodell's pledge) or if a deal gets done by the Super Bowl (Smith's reply). It was the latest public posturing that illustrates how far apart the sides are on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Which is where Vick comes in. He has no control over whether the Eagles use the franchise tag on him, and if there is no new CBA by March, the point is moot because there might not even be a franchise tag in the new deal. Vick has said that he does not really care whether he gets franchised - the one-year payout would be huge, although there would be no signing bonus - but he backed down a little from that stance on Wednesday.
"If they franchise me, we'll see how that goes," Vick said. "I'll leave it up to my agent to work everything out. . . . I'm expecting everything to go according to plan. We'll see what happens over the next couple of months. I've just got to be patient and take it one day at a time."
He has, at least, received a new revenue stream. On Tuesday, Vick struck a two-year deal with Unequal Technologies, a Kennett Square-based company that equipped Vick with a vest, shoulder pads, and a thigh pad during the season. It is Vick's first major paid endorsement since going to prison.
"They're the reason I made it through the season," Vick said. "It's a great opportunity for me."
On Wednesday, Vick stepped off the team bus at a local high school and was cheered by about 100 fans who lined the entrance to the school's stadium. He walked to the practice field, slipped on new cleats, removed the headphones from around his neck, and replaced a blue visor with his green Eagles helmet.
Vick laughed with Jackson, then talked with former Falcons teammate DeAngelo Hall, who wrapped an arm around Vick's shoulder. And then, in perhaps the most ironic example of how things have changed for Vick since he went to prison for fighting and killing dogs, he threw passes to Matt Ryan, the man who replaced him in Atlanta. He also took direction from the Falcons' coaches, who are leading the NFC squad.
Think about it. Six months ago, few people expected anything from Vick. He was a gimmick, the Wildcat, a novelty. He wasn't the Eagles' starting quarterback. Vick wasn't supposed to be a major contributor. He certainly wasn't supposed to be a Pro Bowl starter.
And yet there Vick was, soaking up the sun, sharing reps with the man who replaced him as the Falcons' franchise quarterback, a man who is from the Philadelphia area, who grew up rooting for the Eagles, and who had to pick up the pieces Vick left behind in Atlanta.
"Understanding the situation and everything that I came into and that Mike's done recently, it's my first opportunity to talk to him," said Ryan, who met Vick for the first time Tuesday night. "As soon as you get to know him, he's a really nice guy, down to earth, super relaxed. I enjoyed spending time with him. Once we got out throwing, it was no big deal, which was cool."
With that, Vick walked by, headed to the hotel elevator, and went up to the presidential suite. It took a long time - more than three years, really - to get there. Vick undoubtedly enjoyed the ride.
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