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A soft whimper coats the corner wall of a cell in the Leavenworth federal prison, seeking a way out. The dying tone of a howl of despair, there is no strength in it, no imperative sound that would last more than a moment in the outside corridor. It is cornered, subdued, and rendered practically inaudible in the dense tangle of noise that represents caged inmates, the noise as ubiquitous in this environment as the hardened materials used to build it. This is the soundtrack of budding mayhem most of the time: keys on bars, hands on railings, hands on hands, voices ricocheting off flat walls and floors like bullets. But this other small pocket of human vibrations, the lost sound curling upward but going nowhere, is a man crying.

It doesn’t belong here. It’s a white flag unfurled, a sign of weakness, of somebody giving up. Out in the open in a prison setting it signals impending sacrifice; somebody’s in trouble, somebody’s gonna pay the price. This sound of surrender has rough equivalents in the animal world. The bleating of a lamb separated from its mother and hobbling on a bad leg away from a coyote learning how to hunt. Or the lone chirp of a nestling bird, while all the others have gone silent during the passing of a hungry owl. Or the anxious panting of a reluctant dog thrown in a fighting pit to see what he’s got.

The man in the corner of that cell was Michael Vick. He could tell you a thing or two about that anxious panting.

“Hide your beagle, Vick’s an Eagle,” advised one of the hand held signs greeting the news that Michael Vick, paroled after 20 months of sentence served, had found fresh employment in Philadelphia. Bombastic, sloganeering protest was sure to follow Vick’s release from prison. The crimes were indisputably violent and inhumane, and a federal judge did order it earlier than the final date of the full sentence, which a lot of people thought was too lenient in the first place. So, modern America being the erasable board of excessively expressed opinion that it is, caustic commentary was sure to follow this particular felon’s journey out of the prison parking lot and into the future. To the extent he has curbed his desire to comment in return, he has succeeded in handling the ramped-up scrutiny of his life.

With Roger Goodell and the NFL hastening, in somber tones, to reinstate him as a fully participating player, and with the Humane Society declaring him fit for redemption—as long as he continues to make good on his promise to raise awareness about animal cruelty—Vick is in a highly workable position right about now. The Eagles joined in with their offer of $1.6 million for one year (and a team option of $5.2 million for a second), and it seems clear that, spent a little more wisely than money he has made in the past, it should create a nice cushion between Vick and bankruptcy. The only buzz kill in Vick’s return to society’s norms would be the insistence that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) made on psychological testing and an MRI of his brain to determine whether or not there was evidence of clinical psychopathy. Vick refused, and will thus have to make his way without the endorsement of that energetic organization.

He has expressed regret, and sorrow, and that is right and proper given the nature of his crimes. He’s insinuated that if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn’t make the same decisions that brought him to where he is now. Clearly, the way has been cleared for him to resume a useful life, including that part of it which isn’t measured in completions and third-down conversions. But for some of us, a couple of nagging questions remain. Is he aware that, like it or not, he is still the most public face of a twisted underground cult of men who supervise the maiming and killing of dogs for sport? And why was he crying?

Was it about the personal loss, or about the pain and suffering he inflicted? Was he bemoaning his outcaste state, the missing jewelry, the vanished lump of cash, the sudden unraveling of the world that was wired right into his expensive fingertips? Or was he confronting the enormity of his personal immorality and its effect on blameless animals, responsible owners, and impressionable kids? Feel-good endings demand the latter possibility, but we’ll never know for sure.

We can only watch and see. And yes, it will be an interesting observation. Fellows have left the world of sports before, and attempted comebacks after absences of several years. WWII and the Vietnam War provided dramatic examples of the sports hero interrupted; Ted Williams leaps quickly to mind. But never have we taken the before-and-after measure of a man from both sides of a criminal case of this nature. If Michael Vick was driven inward during the 20 months he spent in prison, and took a long, unflinching look at himself, then the tears he admitted weeping might have signified something valuable: Shame. And redemption. In that order.

What he can’t do is ever forget. And he’ll need to be very careful about how he enjoys life from here on out. There won’t be a moral statute of limitations on the things he did, no matter how many game-saving drives he may yet engineer, or how laden with incentives his future contracts may be. There will always be a roomful of kids somewhere, delighted to be in his presence, looking at him like he could easily pull the cure for cancer or the end of hunger or coupons for free Nikes out of his jacket pocket. And there will always be the parade of low-life men sneaking around with their satchels full of canine steroids, rejoicing in the foaming-jawed destruction of each other’s dogs, waiting for their role model to return.

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