He tastes freedom on Wednesday, sort of, with home confinement in Hampton, Va., the rule for the next couple of months and mental, spiritual and relationship building his charge for the rest of his life. Michael Vick leaves that Leavenworth, Kan., penitentiary minus an absolute get-out-of-jail-free card. His past is severe. His present is binding. His future is unknown.
And that last facet makes him most human.
For what person can exactly foretell his or her tomorrow?
His NFL future is chatter across the league, but a varied sampling of several new and longtime NFL officials leaves this much clear: If Vick convinces NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he has learned from his mistakes after serving his 23-month sentence for dog-fighting charges and convinces Goodell he wants to make a lasting, positive contribution to the league, then he will be reinstated.
As one league official stated: "When did our league get so mighty, so up on its toes that we don't give people second chances? We do that every day. There are a lot of people in this league in various roles who have made bad decisions and were made to pay a high price. This league is full of people who made bad decisions and turned their lives around -- and I am not talking just about players."
The NFL is about defeating seemingly insurmountable adversity.
That is, in part, a core of its games, its fabric, its appeal.
Around the league, these are considered the most popular routes to a Vick NFL return:
» He plays for one year in another league. An option frequently mentioned was for Vick to play a season in Canada, as did Miami running back Ricky Williams, to restore himself. One league executive said: "If he plays well up there, and there is no reason he won't because he is a superior athlete, it would help get his confidence back. He has to play some to get his confidence back. Even the great athlete in this game, he just doesn't show up and play and be as good as he was."
» He joins a team after the season begins. A league official said: "I don't think he will be on a team at kickoff this season. But I do think he will be on a team during the season. A club has to be willing to take a chance on him and he can go a long way in getting that chance by his actions moving forward. I think teams accept that he has fulfilled his court-ordered punishment, which was a high price."
» Injury could pave the way. Several league sources said they believe that if a team suffers a major quarterback injury, that would present the "out" to get Vick in. "An injury situation with a team will help his cause," one source said. "An injury would help ease the blow in dealing with the court of public opinion, which is a monster. 'Why are you signing him?'
`Well, we need a quarterback -- our quarterback is hurt.'"
Goodell has said that he will welcome input before making his decision on Vick. He will find those who say no to Vick under any circumstance. But he will also find plenty who say if Vick meets the standards Goodell is seeking, they are advocates of his reinstatement. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy is the most prominent figure who has publicly shown his support for Vick. But there are many others in the league who are on board with Dungy and have an open mind to Vick's return.
Here is a factor: TV networks and executives want Vick back. He is good TV. He can be a good story. He can be an intriguing story -- even if proven again to be a bad one. The networks do not always get what they want from the NFL. But what they want is seldom simply ignored by the league.
Another thing with Vick: The people in Atlanta who worked with him daily say that his contribution was not all rotten. The Falcons talk about some of the work he did in the community, with children, the impact he made in lives and stories that went untold. Sure, Vick's transgressions were great, but his good deeds and his charities in people's lives there and elsewhere are not things that simply did not happen. They did, just like his illegal acts, and both should have a place of remembrance.
The bottom line with a Vick return to the NFL lies in his fulfilling the final two months of legal requirements. It lies in whether Goodell allows him to return. And it lies in an NFL owner making the final call on bringing Vick into his franchise. The final phase requires that ownership decision, one that says Vick is an answer for his franchise, not a detriment.
Hall of Fame member and former NFL coach Marv Levy is 83. He has spent most of the last 60 years involved in some aspect of football, most of that with the NFL. He is a man of immense perspective and what he says about Vick echoes in several NFL circles:
"I hope the young man has learned, because what he has been through is a traumatic experience. I hope, and I stress hope, his attitude when he returns is not one of belligerence, not that I have heard that is the way he is now in any way. I only dealt with him early in his career and I can say he was likeable and modest. Are teams going to give him a chance? I don't know. The team that does has to do a tremendous and insightful analysis. The odds are against him, but he would not be the first person in the NFL to beat the odds.
"I am a person extremely active in the humane treatment of animals. I have a disdain for the cruel treatment of animals. And even with that in mind and considering what he did was terrible, I think in this situation he can realize and learn. You find out what his mindset is. You don't have a 'get-outta-here' approach. I wish the guy well. I hope he does it. I hope he merits it."