HONOLULU - Even Mr. Humorless himself, Bill Belichick, took time on Sunday to speak to Michael Vick.
Before the Pro Bowl turned into a 55-41 NFC rout, as Vick was warming up throwing passes to Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, the New England Patriots coach crossed the field at the 50-yard line, approached Vick, and shook his hand. Belichick spoke to the Eagles quarterback for at least a minute, a one-way conversation toward the end of which Vick draped an arm around Belichick's shoulder in a gesture that let observers know that whatever Belichick was saying, it had meaning and Vick appreciated it.
It seems everyone within the tight-knit National Football League community is pulling for Vick. That is why the league gave him the 4,200-square-foot presidential suite at the team hotel for the week of the Pro Bowl and why, before the game began, most players expected Vick to be named the most valuable player. (He wasn't.)
Before he went to prison for dogfighting and killing dogs, Vick was wildly popular among his peers because he played the game at a speed unmatched by other quarterbacks and with a determination that was infectious. He never was arrogant or aloof. He wanted to win. The biggest knock on Vick was that he relied too much on natural ability and did not work hard enough at his craft.
But a jerk? A diva? An elitist? Vick was never those things. Still isn't.
If anything, those within the NFL have been impressed by Vick's obvious work ethic. You don't miss out on two seasons and play sparingly in a third and return at the level Vick played this season without an awful lot of time and hard work. You don't go from jail to a Pro Bowl starter by accident.
"I don't think anybody can really know how difficult that is to do," Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning told me on Friday. "I can just only imagine the challenge - the timing, seeing defenses, and the game changes every single year. Defenses change.
"I think when a guy sits out a couple of weeks, I feel like they're behind. He's talking about a couple of years. It's a great challenge. It's a great credit to him. It's a very difficult thing to do."
It will be interesting to see how Ben Roethlisberger is received at the Super Bowl in Dallas this week. Vick killed and maimed dogs, and served 18 months in prison and a two-game, NFL-mandated suspension. Roethlisberger has twice been accused of sexually assaulting women, once in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and in Milledgeville, Ga., last March, when a college student said Roethlisberger forced her to have sex with him in a bathroom at a bar.
He was not charged in either case.
Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension to start this season because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell felt he needed to send the quarterback a wake-up call. Repeated accusations of sexual assault, even though never proven in a court of law, were enough for Goodell to take action.
Roethlisberger's reputation as an arrogant, immature, entitled jerk didn't help him. He has been viewed in the league as a player who got too much fame and had too much success too soon. As a second-year player out of Miami of Ohio in 2005, Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl, a 21-10 victory against the Seattle Seahawks in a game in which he was not sharp, completing just 9 of 21 passes and throwing two interceptions.
He got his second Super Bowl ring after the 2008 season, when the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23.
In between, Roethlisberger wrecked his motorcycle in downtown Pittsburgh while not bothering to wear a helmet. If he had any appreciation or respect for his status as the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Roethlisberger didn't act like it.
By most accounts, Roethlisberger, like Vick, has realized the error of his ways and is on a more straight-and-narrow path now. As with Vick, we will withhold judgment on Roethlisberger's redemption, at least for a while. These things take more time than the course of an NFL season.
But will Roethlisberger, who has led the Steelers to yet another Super Bowl, be as universally beloved within the NFL as Vick is today? I doubt it.
Players see through the bravado. They know when a guy is a fake or a self-absorbed jerk. That is why so many current players broke the code and took to Twitter to jump all over Jay Cutler after the Chicago Bears quarterback injured a knee and failed to go back into the NFC championship game. Not many guys like him, because he is not very likable.
Roethlisberger is different, because he is a baller. He is big and strong and has developed into a reliable, clutch quarterback who belongs among the elite. Will that, and a new attitude, be enough?
Vick clearly has passed the smell test within the league. The trick for him now, as one industry source close to him told me last week, will be for Vick to remain levelheaded, continue to work hard, make good decisions, and not become enamored with himself. Gone are the days when Vick can go hang out at a lounge or a party. He has to be smarter than that.
Of course, that can be hard to do, especially when success brings increased attention and demands on your time.
This week in Hawaii, at least, Vick seemed to handle himself right. He will have to continue to make good decisions, stay humble, and stay hungry to keep the respect of men such as Belichick and Manning.
The NFC matched a Pro Bowl scoring record in a 55-41 victory over the turnover-prone AFC. E3.
Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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