WITH EACH NEW twist, the story regenerates itself. Each big game. Each bad game. Each incident, each interview reseeds the deeply rooted opinions about Michael Vick - his sincerity, his regret, his right to reclaim his superstar life and all the trappings accorded it.
Andy Reid said the "real story" for kids about yesterday's official announcement of Vick's $100 million contract was that in America, "There can be an opportunity for a second chance, and how do you handle that second chance?"
It's exactly the type of comment that broadens smiles on one end of the spectrum and tightens fists on the other, but in that core of middle America where most of us reside, the soft, gooey part is clearly getting larger. His shirt is again among the top NFL sellers. Only 2 years ago, you had trouble finding it in Philadelphia-area stores. Nike is back on board, albeit with one foot in and one foot out.
And there was nary a placard or photo of mistreated dogs outside of NovaCare yesterday.
Just a lot of business suits and luxury cars.
That serves as the 31-year-old's entourage these days. Black men in suits, white men in suits, some there to plan the future, some to patch up the past. He owes an estimated $18 million to various creditors, Vick does, and according to one financial expert from CNBC, will see only about $1.8 million of the $20 million he is to be paid this season. A bankruptcy court judge has limited him to $300,000 in living expenses until all of his debts are paid, so the idea that Vick will now return to his evil preprison ways - promoted by the redwoods on one side of the endless Vick debate - is as unrealistic as it is unfair.
Vick is a changed man. You can't maintain a charade this long without letting a little self-pitying victimization slip through. And while the deepest roots of this debate are no doubt planted on the far ends of the two Americas we live in, Vick has repeatedly refused attempts to portray his punishment or plight in terms of persecution or race. He might believe it, you might believe it and, hell, it's hard to argue it doesn't exist in almost any situation involving African-Americans. But the soft, gooey part pushing toward him these days is made up of all creeds, colors and economic backgrounds. And they're buying in.
You just can't outsell Tom Brady's shirt without all of us.
"I'm just trying to be the best person that I can be," Vick said yesterday. "You know, I can't control what people think, their opinions, or their perception. I think that's personal, and that's for them. But the only thing that I can control is what I can control, and that's trying to be the best person I can be, the best citizen I can be, best father that I can be, and I think that speaks for itself. You know, that's not by force, it's by choice. Some things may never change, I may never change in certain facets of my life, but it is what it is."
So maybe it's time to believe what we see, not what we think he is hiding. Rip him still for the gun-wielding mess of his brother's ill-advised birthday bash two summers ago if you must, but give him credit then for staying clear of such stuff since. Snicker if you must when he talks about being a better father, a better role model to kids, but tell me you don't see a sadness each time he says such things, aware that even $100 million can't buy time travel.
As for feigned regret? Well, then, when the contract ends 6 years from now or sooner, he should head straight to Hollywood.
"He's an incredible dude, man," Jeremy Maclin, one of the Eagles' more likable and respected players, said in front of his locker yesterday. "I've seen a lot of guys going through kind of what he's experienced . . . A lot of guys eventually go back to doing what they were doing. But I think he really has changed. I think he deserves everything he's getting."
Jason Avant, a confessed drug dealer in his early teens who has forged his own compelling redemption story, said: "The situation that he's been through has prepared him to take advantage of this. I'd be more concerned for a younger guy."
These are two of the Eagles' most upstanding guys. And savvy. The locker room was filled with this kind of stuff yesterday, player upon player, and watching Vick on the field yesterday again tutoring Vince Young on an offense that he acknowledges he still hasn't quite mastered - well, it was hard to believe the Eagles made a mistake here.
But you know how that goes. And he does, too.
"Like I said, that one common goal is to win the Super Bowl, and that's why we play," he said as yesterday's news conference wound down. "As a competitor, I don't feel like my career would be complete without that."
Wrongly perhaps, his redemption might need it, too. No matter what Michael Vick looks like or sounds like at the end.
For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.