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For Michael Vick, next step is crucial to NFL return

Today, a famous man is scheduled to walk out of a prison.

Behind him is ruin. Ahead of him is uncertainty. All around him are questions.

Tell me, do you suppose Michael Vick returns bitter, or grateful?

Heaven knows, at 28, he is still a young man. And he is not that far removed from paychecks in the tens of millions. He understands what it is like to have doors open up before him, and fans trail along after him.

He also has spent much of the past two years behind bars. His finances are a mess, and the Falcons have terminated his contract. He does not know what chances remain for him in the NFL, or how loud the protests will be in the streets.

All in all, Michael Vick is in an extremely rare situation: A fallen star with a chance for redemption.

I'm not talking about an Alex Rodriguez-like fall. A-Rod may have taken a huge public relations hit, but he never lost his freedom and he still has baseball's fattest contract. And I'm not talking about a Tank Johnson-like fall. Johnson was not even close to Vick in notoriety. Ditto for Latrell Sprewell and Jamal Lewis. Pete Rose may have been more recognizable than Vick, but his playing days were over by the time of his disgrace.

In recent times, boxer Mike Tyson is probably the only athlete who comes close to Vick in terms of popularity and age when his career was interrupted by a prison sentence. And Tyson had the misfortune of appearing to be borderline psychotic.

Which means Vick is heading toward uncharted territory in the coming months. And how he handles this time will go a long way toward determining the rest of his life.

Here are the issues Vick must navigate:

1. Convincing commissioner Roger Goodell he deserves to be reinstated. This is a little more tricky than it might seem. Goodell has already suggested his standards will be high when it comes to Vick's request, and the commissioner does not want to appear soft after Vick lied to him in the early days of the dogfighting investigation.

It's a safe bet Goodell eventually will reinstate Vick. The question is whether the commissioner allows Vick to dangle in the wind longer than necessary. If he does, it sends a signal to the rest of the NFL that Vick still has issues.

2. Steering clear of the animal rights activists. Pretty much, this is a battle Vick cannot win. If he tries to appease the folks at PETA with some grand gesture or hokey charitable endeavor, it will likely be criticized as insincere. And going the opposite direction, lashing out at protesters,would be career suicide.

Vick's best bet is to wait them out. If he stays out of trouble, if he says all the right things, the activists will eventually move on to another cause. And those who remain will begin to look like fanatics, and that could actually work in Vick's favor.

3. Picking the right team for his comeback. This is not as easy as it sounds. For a while, in Atlanta, Vick was on top of the world. He had the NFL's biggest contract, and one of its biggest egos. Vick acted as if he was the best quarterback in the world, and that was far, far from the truth. He was dynamic, but he was not a complete player.

This time around, Vick must realize his limitations. He must understand he is carrying baggage. He must recognize he needs to learn how to control an offense. In short, he must be a little more humble.

Vick shouldn't be looking for the most money or the biggest media market. He needs to find a coaching staff that will have patience. He needs to find an offense that fits his skills. He needs to accept that his first attempt at a comeback might be his last if he does not handle the situation correctly

So, do you think he can pull if off? Do you think he even deserves the chance?

There is a segment of the population that is hoping Vick will fail. Those who would vilify him at every turn. Frankly, I don't get that. He committed horrible deeds, and he rightfully paid a high price. But I've always believed one punishment was enough

There is another segment of the population that likes to portray Vick as a victim. Those who justify his crimes by trying to draw comparisons and parallels that simply do not exist. Regardless of any other issues or debates, the bottom line is Vick knowingly broke the law and needed to answer for his actions

Which brings us back to today

Vick is leaving prison, and returning to his life. He still has a few months of home confinement, and he still has several years of probation. But, for the first time in a long while, Michael Vick can look forward to sleeping in his own bed

So what do you think?

Is he bitter about all he lost, or grateful for a second chance?

Because the answer could determine his future.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

For Michael Vick, next step is crucial to NFL return 05/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 6:39am]

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