PITTSBURGH — The crowd around the backup quarterback’s locker was three or four deep. Somewhere in the middle, underneath the bright lights that never seem to go away, Michael Vick spent 13 minutes answering the same questions that never seem to go away.
Six years removed from the end of a federal prison sentence for his role in a dogfighting ring that changed his football career — and more importantly the arc of his life — Vick understands his mere presence in the NFL remains difficult for some.
As the newest member of the Pittsburgh Steelers spoke Wednesday less than 24 hours after agreeing to a one-year deal, a handful of protesters armed with homemade signs gathered outside the team’s training complex to remind Vick of personal missteps he understands will follow him forever. One sign read: “Jail time is not enough.”
“There still are some people who feel the same way about what happened,” Vick said. “But I think you’ve got to look at the bottom line. You can’t look to the past, because everybody’s different from when they’re 20 to when they’re 35.”
And the man in the white No. 2 jersey who spent Wednesday jogging and getting his left arm loose is decidedly different from the football supernova that once appeared to be a video game brought to life.
He’s not a starter anymore. He’s not young anymore. He’s not the franchise anymore. He’s not even a redemption case anymore. The Steelers don’t need Vick to save them. Really, they kind of hope they don’t need him at all. Ben Roethlisberger got a $100 million contract last spring and isn’t looking over his shoulder.
Vick is simply Plan B, or maybe even Plan C. And he gets it, even if it took some getting used to last season while playing overqualified understudy to Geno Smith with the New York Jets.
“I admit that I didn’t do it as well as I wanted to, because in my mind the position I was in was supposed to be different,” Vick said. “But I think you’ve got to accept it first. I think I’ve been able to do that and come to grips with it, and my role is clear.”
The role comes with its own unique circumstances. This is the duality of Vick in the twilight. He will forever be a pariah to some — his first day with the Steelers ironically coincided with National Dog Day — and yet for many players he remains as much myth as man.
Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell was “starstruck” when he ran into Vick before the crisp informal workout that led to Vick’s signing. Rookie quarterback/wide receiver Tyler Murphy idolized Vick when the now 23-year-old Murphy was in elementary school. The nod of respect is a reminder of how far Vick is from his prime, when he was spectacularly making it up as he went along in Atlanta and giving Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sleepless nights when he was running the secondary in Tampa Bay.
Part of Vick believes a shred of that player still exists. It’s what made sitting by the phone this summer after his largely lifeless year with the Jets so frustrating.
“I felt like I didn’t lose a step, especially with my arm strength and my speed, and I just didn’t understand why (I didn’t get called),” Vick said. “But I kept my faith and kept working hard, because I knew that at some point, eventually, I would get a shot.”
What that shot will eventually look like, however, remains unclear. Tomlin didn’t rule out giving Vick an opportunity to get in the huddle on Saturday against Buffalo, simply calling what he saw on Wednesday “a good start.”
“His talents are his talents,” Tomlin said. “He can throw the football. He can put it anywhere on the field.”
Vick is OK with that being enough for now. He’s become pretty capable of learning on the fly during a nomadic second act that brought him from Philadelphia to New York to Pittsburgh. He’s also adept at defusing any lingering tension about his misdeeds.
While the attendant at the team’s front desk took phone calls from fans expressing displeasure at his arrival, he remained stoic when asked how he “can sleep with himself” at night, pointing to his work as an advocate against animal cruelty.
“I can’t take it back, but the only thing I can do is to try to make up for it the best I can,” he said. “I know it affected a lot of kids’ lives and saving a lot of animals. So, we’ve made a lot of progress. We changed some laws and do some great things that I’m very proud of. I never thought I’d be doing that.”
A few moments later the lights flipped off, the sea of cameras and microphones around him dispersed and Vick sat in his locker, picked up his phone and embraced the peace within.