CONVICTED dog-killer and -torturer Michael Vick admits he was nervous when he took the field at the Eagles preseason game in Philly on Thursday night. He didn't know what kind of reception to expect from these fans - arguably among the toughest in the country.
He trotted out onto the field, listening, waiting for the crowd to send him the first message from the fans he'll be representing in his first NFL gig since being arrested almost three years ago.
He didn't have to wait long. It came almost immediately. Rising on the undertones of the cheers that greeted him from the stands, the message was loud and clear: "Hey, Mike, don't worry. Even though the law says dogfighting and animal cruelty are wrong, the public sure doesn't think so. You're an effin' hero, man!"
I thought Philadelphia expected more from its heroes. A couple of well-scripted press conferences and a lame PSA for the Humane Society - where the worst he has to say about dogfighting is that it's "pointless" - and all is right between Vick and the world?
Yes, he's paid his dues - legally. And yes, people deserve a second chance. Vick sure as heck got his. And what a second chance it is . . . being immediately catapulted back into the superstar realm of adoring fans and multimillion-dollar salaries. And it's only a matter of time before some whackadoo corporation offers him a lucrative endorsement deal. "No way!" you might be thinking. But just wait . . .
THE JUSTICE system aside, Vick owes a debt on the human level. He deserves - and now has - a chance to pay those dues.
He was picked up by the City of Brotherly Love and no doubt will be given every opportunity to be a better human being and try to balance the horrible wrong he did by now doing tremendous good on behalf of animals. Probably better than any other city in the country, Philly will afford him that opportunity.
I totally expect our fans to keep him real, keep him honest, push him when necessary, and cheer his efforts and successes - to embrace him with the tough love of an Italian grandmother who has big dreams for you and doesn't care if she has to pull your sideburns and kick your butt to make sure you achieve them.
What I didn't expect was for the fans to give it all away the minute Vick took the field in Eagles colors for the very first time. Cheering him? Seriously?
At first, I hoped he'd be booed loudly and mercilessly for so long that the start of the game would be delayed. But that wouldn't have been appropriate, either.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, right after the signing, said basically that if Vick does what's expected of him both on the field as a player and, especially, off in terms of becoming a voice against dogfighting and animal cruelty, then signing him was worth the risk.
But if not, "there's no third chances, and we know that. If it isn't fulfilled the way we expect it to be, then it will be the end," Lurie said after Vick was signed.
The perfect response to Vick's arrival on the field Thursday night would have been silence - dead wait-and-see silence to let him know, without a doubt, that his new family of fans has expectations for him - expectations that need to be met, if not exceeded, before they actually welcome him into the fold.
That really is all Vick deserves - a chance to prove himself, not as a football player but as a decent human being who truly understands 1) that dogfighting and animal cruelty are reprehensible (not just "pointless"), 2) that he should be really sorry for what he did, and not just because he got caught doing it, and 3) that he really can and must be a positive force in the battle against dogfighting and animal cruelty of all kinds.
Where exactly has he done any of that yet? What exactly has he done to merit the adulation he received Thursday night? All he's done is sign a contract that will earn him millions and then show up on the field like he's being paid to do.
All he's done is what he's always done. Were the fans cheering him for making it through the month without torturing and murdering an animal?
Whatever their motivations, the cheering fans gave Vick a sense of relief - even euphoria.
"I can't explain the feeling. It was unbelievable the way I was embraced and the warm welcome I received," he was quoted as saying after the game.
"The sky's the limit. I sat on the sideline today and was thinking about so many different things that we can do. It's almost scary. We've got a great staff, and they are very good at coming up with concepts that can put this team in a position to win, and I'm excited. Whatever I have to do, I can do it all. I did it all when I was younger; I can do it all now. Down the road, I'll be back at the quarterback position full time, but as of right now I just have to do what I can to win."
Your contrition brings tears to my eyes, Mike.
Vick paid his dues on the criminal level and has more than got his second chance. Now he has a chance to redeem himself on the human level. Of course, he deserves that chance, too.
What he doesn't deserve is adoration, blind faith, unconditional acceptance and a standing ovation. Not yet. Let him prove himself to be redeemed, contrite, truly sorry and willing to "do whatever [he has] to do" to make a positive difference in regard to animal cruelty.
Then we can cheer.
Margaret Battistelli is a Philadelphia- based writer and the editor of FundRaising Success, a magazine that serves nonprofit organizations around the country. She can be reached at email@example.com.