A year after his kind gesture, Vick hears cheers

Posted: August 30, 2014

Buddy Ryan coached and lived in Philadelphia for five years, long enough for his son, Rex, to understand that, despite all the stereotypes to the contrary, the core of the city's sports culture isn't bitterness. It's sentimentality.

So Rex Ryan, the New York Jets' head coach, did an interesting thing Thursday night in an otherwise uninteresting football game: He started Michael Vick at quarterback and left him in for one play.

Vick took the field, pantomimed throwing the football once, and handed the ball off to running back Daryl Richardson. He took off his helmet, slipped on a visor, and jogged to the sideline, staying there for the remainder of the 37-7 victory that marked the end of the Eagles' preseason schedule.

The entire sequence lasted less than five minutes, which was still more than enough time for the sparse crowd at Lincoln Financial Field to applaud. It was a small, if appreciative, ovation, an acknowledgement of who Vick had become, and what he had done, over his five seasons with the Eagles.

"It was great," Vick said. "It was very warm. It was what I expected, and I'm glad it turned out that way."

The importance of his contributions came into sharper relief earlier this week. In an interview with ESPN.com, Vick went into fly-on-the-wall detail about his role in defusing the crisis that threatened to cause Chip Kelly's first season as coach to crumble around him.

Riley Cooper had been caught on video using a racial slur at a concert, and, according to Vick, the only hope that Cooper had of salvaging his career with the Eagles - and maybe in the NFL - was to have one of his black teammates stand up for him, both in public and within the relative sanctity of the Eagles' locker room.

Cooper apologized to the players, then stepped outside and closed the door behind him. Kelly opened the floor for a discussion, only to be met with uncomfortable silence.

"Chip kind of gave me a look like, 'Mike, come on. Give me something,' " Vick told ESPN. With that glance from his coach, with his redemptive journey from prison back to pro football affording him the respect of the entire room, Vick asked his teammates to forgive Cooper.

"Obviously, it was a big moment for us," Vick said. "It was a big moment for the Eagles. We were able to get through it.

"It was a big moment for people."

There is no way, really, to overstate the value of Vick's gesture to either the Eagles or Cooper. In showing his willingness to welcome Cooper back, Vick ensured that Cooper's deserved status as a pariah would always have an expiration date, that if Cooper showed genuine remorse and kept his mouth shut from then on, the Eagles would have a place for him.

And make no mistake: The Eagles needed Cooper. He was the second wide receiver on their depth chart, behind DeSean Jackson, so the question of whether they should cut him was never as clear-cut as his then-meager resumé would have suggested.

Remember, too, that Kelly and his avant garde ideas about offense and practice and conditioning had not yet gained the acceptance and regard among his players and around the league that they enjoy today. He was a rookie head coach, unproven and staring at dozens of skeptical faces, and he was gambling that someone would lend him a measure of support.

Vick did. He allowed Kelly the chance to win over the entire team, Cooper included, without fear of a backlash. Kelly has never forgotten that, lauding Vick's leadership whenever an opportunity presents itself, lauding him for how he handled the starting quarterback job midseason with Nick Foles.

Time after time last season, Vick could have made life difficult for Kelly, for Cooper, for the Eagles as a whole. Time after time, he acted with grace.

Now, here was another example. Vick did not know that Ryan was going to remove him after the first play. He had been prepared to play a full quarter, he said, and if Geno Smith performs well this season for the Jets, this might have been Vick's last game action for a good, long while.

"I know how Philadelphia thought of Mike," Ryan said. "I just thought it was an appropriate thing to do, to send him off that way."

The Eagles signed Vick in 2009 with the two-pronged belief that they could rehabilitate him not only as a quarterback but as a person, and over the last 12 months, with that single, generous gesture after a teammate's terrible mistake, he had come to validate that hope.

"They believed in me enough to do that," Vick said, "and in return, I gave everything that I could."

And, so, Michael Vick didn't complain Thursday as he left the game so soon. He just stood there on the sideline and let the sound of those cheers carry into the night.



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