Friends never came over to my house more often than the time I got a copy of Madden 2004 for my birthday. Michael Vick was on the cover but it quickly became a house rule that you couldn’t pick the Atlanta Falcons because their quarterback was essentially a cheat code. Seemingly by fate, Atlanta was also the hotbed for music that year, with Usher’s iconic “Yeah!“, Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” and Lil John & The East Side Boyz “Get Low” running the radio. But it was T.I’s “Rubber Band Man” that felt like the soundtrack to Atlanta that year. Lo and behold, there was Michael Vick looking like the coolest person who ever lived at the end of the video. Move over Paul Newman.
In my eyes, Atlanta was the cultural capital of the world. The Falcons and Braves were everything I wanted my favorite sports teams to be and the city curated the soundtrack of my life (never mind that I lived 1,500 miles from Georgia). And to me, Michael Vick was the face of the movement.
The day I found out he had been involved in illegal dog fighting was a few years later, and I was working at my first job selling shoes at a Nike Outlet store. Giant photos of athletes were posted in every window; the largest one had Vick’s face on it. My manager tasked me to take the portrait down. Nike had just told me in one of their commercials that he was invincible; now I faced an impossible task. Taking down that gigantic poster felt like the end of my childhood. Emotionally, it’s still the hardest thing I’ve been asked to do at work.
Naturally, when I heard ESPN and 30 for 30, the best sports documentary franchise, was making an episode on Vick’s life, I was ecstatic and had monumental expectations. What ESPN and director Stanley Nelson have done with Vick has far exceeded those expectations. Nelson easily hurdles the prerequisites of laying out a timetable of this icon’s life. But that’s not what makes this documentary exceptional. Instead, it dissects the stratospheric mythology around this man and almost impossibly brings him back to earth. That’s something I desperately needed.
Despite what my childhood video games taught me, Vick is not a superhero. He is a human with many faults just like the rest of us. This is a story about squandered opportunities that also lays out the template of how to take advantage of second chances. It’s about justified polarization and whether or not those comebacks should even happen in the first place. It’s about taking control of your life, because no matter your intentions, it can all slip away before you even realize what happened.
The story of Michael Vick will always be relevant, because he helped chip away at the racist assumption that African American’s were not capable of playing QB at a professional level, no matter their level of understanding and athleticism. This documentary provides the important context and history of that absurd mentality. Vick was the first African American quarterback to be drafted first overall. There is no Russell Wilson, no Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, no league MVP Lamar Jackson without Michael Vick. No matter how complicated his legacy is, he paved the way for those to come. What this documentary does so well is to help us navigate and accept both of these realities.
This is the best 30 for 30 in years, and not only because its four-hour run time feels shorter than Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour The Irishman. Every 30 for 30 is excellent; usually, however, it’s because it documents a memorable time in sports history. While Vick definitely accomplishes this, the bigger take away is that this documentary forces you to examine yourself.
It asks the big question of why we place athletes so high on a pedestal in the first place. It forces you to consider how you would treat someone in their worst moment, no matter how horrific that was. It asks you to examine your prejudices, not only in sports but in society. I didn’t know anything about Newport News, the hometown of my supposed hero and neighboring Hampton, the hometown of Allen Iverson — much less the hardships coming out of Virginia. This documentary is a must watch because it helps you grow right alongside the titular character.
Part 2 of 30 for 30: Vick premieres Thursday, February 6, at 9pm ET on ESPN. Watch On Demand in your Guide or on the documentaries ribbon in the Sports Tab.