Stan Hochman: Vick has company on the comeback trail

Michael Vick will be eligible to play this weekend for the first time in 3 years.
Michael Vick will be eligible to play this weekend for the first time in 3 years.
Posted: September 23, 2009

MUHAMMAD ALI did it. Michael Jordan did it. Twice. Ted Williams did it. Twice. Mike Tyson came apart trying. Kim Clijsters? Oh, mama! Floyd Mayweather did it impressively on the weekend, against an undersized, overmatched warrior.

And now it is Michael Vick's turn to peer into the comeback kaleidoscope, first time in a long time. Do the multicolored crystals align in a starburst pattern or do they wind up in the random, chaotic design that spells failure?

Vick missed two NFL seasons doing time in the slammer for behavior Jeff Lurie described as lacking "a shred of human decency." And now Vick comes back with the Eagles, owned by Lurie.

Does pro football make strange bedfellows or what? After an exhibition charade, Vick bragged that "the sky's the

limit." How high the sky? We will have a better idea starting Sunday, when Vick is activated for his first meaningful game in 3 years. What does history tell us about his chances?

Let's start with Ali, a very good place to start any noisy debate. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to take that one step forward at an Army induction center in Houston. That very same day, the New York State Athletic Commission stripped Ali of his title and snatched away his boxing license.

Other states followed. For 3 years, for chump change, Ali delivered clumsy speeches to college kids. He appeared briefly on Broadway in "Big Time Buck White." People worked feverishly to get him a fight, on an Indian reservation, on a barge beyond the 3-mile limit, in Pennsylvania ("Over my dead body," snarled commissioner Chuck Bednarik).

Even before the Supreme Court reversed Ali's draft-evasion conviction on a technicality, Ali was permitted to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in October 1970. Showed glimpses of those swift hands and dancing feet, stopped Quarry on cuts in the third round.

Beat Oscar Bonavena 2 months later. And then signed to fight heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Fought brilliantly, courageously, but Frazier was too strong, too determined, flooring Ali in the final round with a left hook that came whistling out of Beaufort, S.C. Joe won a unanimous decision.

Along the way, Ali somehow got the image of antiwar crusader and civil-rights activist. Which had to tickle the charismatic fighter who once declared, "I don't have to be what you want me to be."

In Zaire, of all places, Ali bewitched, bothered and bewildered George Foreman, rope-a-doped him, knocked him out in the eighth round, regained the heavyweight championship in October 1974.

After that, it was a rattling roller-coaster ride that mirrored Ali's shortest poem, "Me? Wheee!" Beat a bloodied Chuck Wepner to inspire Sylvester Stallone to write "Rocky." Beat guys named Coopman and Dunn. Collected a tough payday against a shin-kicking wrestler named Inoki. Lost the title to Leon Spinks. Got it back from Leon Spinks. Retired. Came back, foolishly, and was pounded by Larry Holmes.

Apples vs. oranges? Boxing is an individual sport; football, to almost everyone not named Terrell Owens, is a team sport.

Let's move on to basketball and Michael Jordan, the best player to ever play the game. Jordan won three NBA titles with Chicago in '91, '92 and '93. And then walked away, which is ironic, because they never, ever called walking on Jordan.

He wasn't old or injured. He had just won his seventh scoring title. In the finals against Phoenix, he averaged 41 a game. Got the MVP bauble for the third time.

He quit to play minor league baseball. Said he was honoring his father, who had been murdered at a highway rest stop. No one pursued the rumors that the league had asked him to step aside to deal with a compulsive-gambling problem. Spent a year trying to hit the curveball in Birmingham. Batted .202.

And then, in March of '95, he issued a two-word proclamation, "I'm back." Scored 55 in a game against the Knicks, but the postseason ended in a loss to Orlando.

Won it all the next year, scoring title, MVP, the championship on Father's Day, tearfully. Won it the next 2 years, shoving that Utah player aside to make one incredibly clutch, indelibly photogenic shot for the ages.

Retired again in January of '99. Came back again in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards, filling arenas, scoring 43 in a game at age 40. His final game was April 16, 2003, in Philadelphia, scored 13, got a standing ovation.

Quit for good, found a home in the Charlotte Bobcats' front office, worked on his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Should have worked harder.

Ali had 3-plus years of a gaudy career taken away by bureaucrats. Jordan sauntered away for more than a year on a whim. Other athletes had careers interrupted by war, by injury, by illness, by motherhood.

Ted Williams lost five seasons, serving his country as a Marine Corps aviator in two separate tours of duty. Hit .356 in 1942 for Boston, with 36 homers and 137 runs batted in. Enlisted. Did not return until the 1946 season.

How did he do? Only hit .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBI. His ambition in life? To have people say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Then came the Korean conflict and Williams was called back at serve in May 1952 at the age of 34. Flew 39 combat missions. Came back again in '53 and played seven more seasons. Hit .316 in his final season, hit a home run in his final at-bat.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a thankless child. Shakespeare said that, not Williams. But Ted's son had the Hall of Famer's head frozen. Biostasis, it's called. Among other things.

Two hockey players named Lemieux came back after long absences, with dramatically different results. Claude Lemieux, regarded as one of the dirtiest players ever, tried a comeback at age 43 last November after five seasons away from the NHL.

Played 18 games with San Jose. Scored one point, on an assist against the Kings.

Mario Lemieux was a horse of another choler. Played 17 seasons with Pittsburgh. Wound up owning part of the team. Only guy ever to win a Stanley Cup as a player and an owner.

In January '93 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Underwent those strength-sapping radiation treatments. Came back in March for a game in Philly. Scored a goal, had an assist, got a standing ovation. The Penguins went on to win 17 in a row.

Injuries stopped him in '94-95, but he came back, again, to lead the league in scoring with 69 goals and 92 assists in '95-96.

Cynics will choose Mike Tyson as the yardstick for measuring Vick's chances because Tyson spent 3 years in prison before his chaotic comeback. An Indiana jury convicted him in 1992 for sexually assaulting a beauty pageant contestant, even though his defense attorneys said the young woman should have been aware of Tyson's reputation as a thug.

Fought toothless tigers named Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis Jr. in 1995 when he got out. Won a piece of the splintered heavyweight championship. Lost it to Evander Holyfield in November 1996 on a TKO. And then, in the rematch with Holyfield the following June, the frustrated bully bit off a chunk of Evander's ear in another loss.

Finally hung up the gloves in 2005 after quitting in a loss to Ken McBride. Said that he no longer had "the guts or the heart anymore."

Was the subject of a sympathetic documentary, appeared as a caricature of himself in a recent movie. He's broke. It's sad.

Can we mix in a happy comeback story? Kim Clijsters comes back after 2 1/2 years of retirement, 18 months after the birth of her daughter, to win the U.S. Open this month.

Unseeded, unranked, she thumps Serena Williams in the semifinal, which winds up being remembered for Serena's foul-mouthed tirade against a line judge. Beats Caroline Wozniacki for the championship.

That balances out the gloomy memories of Bjorn Borg's comeback attempt in 1991 after 8 years. He came back with a wooden racket. It wasn't long before the racket and Borg's dreams were splintered.

Want a shorter comeback? Jim Palmer tried coming back as a big-league pitcher in 1991 after 7 years away. Lasted 21 pitches in spring training.

Green Bay's Paul Hornung was banned for a year in 1963 for betting on football games. Came back and played briefly and ineffectively.

Which brings us to Mayweather and his lopsided victory over a gallant gnome named Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday night. Marquez was moving up from 130 to fight as a welterweight. Mayweather weighed in at 146 and had to pay Marquez $600,000 as a penalty.

Maybe that eased the pain of absorbing 290 shots from the bigger, stronger Mayweather, who said afterward, "I've been off for 2 years, so I felt like it took me a couple of rounds to really know I was back in the ring again. I know I'll get better."

So, what's the outlook for Vick? How could 18 months in prison help erratic passing skills? Is the rust gone? Will his legs keep him safe from harm? It shouldn't take long to find out.

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