Illustration by Willow Mayor. Photo by Joe Samuel Starnes.
Illustration by Willow Mayor. Photo by Joe Samuel Starnes.
Michael Vick coolly catches the shotgun snap from the center and steps back only a yard or so into the pocket, his footwork speedy but smooth, effortless in appearance and lightning fast, the ball at his hip, his wrist cocked and ready. He stands straight up and his eyes dart around, scanning the field, 21 men all in frenzied motion in their individual battles. He’s looking for receivers and checking for rushing lineman and blitzing linebackers, men in red jerseys and black helmets intent on slipping past the protective behemoths in white jerseys and knocking his ass down.
Vick spots an open man over the middle and with an easy flick of his left arm tosses a nine-yard completion. Just as he releases the ball, blitzing Atlanta Falcons safety William Moore—at six feet, 218 pounds, the exact height and almost identical weight as Vick—races around running back LeSean McCoy and hurls himself toward Vick. Moore wraps his arms around Vick’s waist as he hits him in the midsection but is unable to pull him down. Vick resists the hit and stays on his feet while Moore falls to the ground. The force of the collision, however, spins Vick around and into his teammate, crouching lineman Todd Herremans, half-a-foot taller and 106 pounds heavier than his quarterback. Herremans has fended off the rush of Falcons defensive end John Abraham, a mere man of only six-feet-four and 263 pounds, shoving him to the ground in a motion that sends Herremans turning toward Vick at nearly the same moment that Vick is being hit and spun around. Vick’s and Herremans' helmets slam together and Vick’s head snaps back like a crash test dummy's. And then he drops, falling onto his back. Immediately he reaches to cradle his head in his hands. Herremans had been leaning forward during the blow; his head didn’t move. He remains standing, bending over and looking down on the injured Vick like a worried 10-year-old who let his baby brother get hurt.
Vick leaves the game spitting blood. Doctors diagnose him with a concussion, the first official concussion of his career, leaving him in doubt for the Eagles’ home opener against the New York Giants the following week. The play takes all of about three seconds, a long blink or a brief moment of distraction. It was impossible to tell what happened on only one viewing—to accurately describe the action of the five men directly involved I had to watch the replay again and again.
The Eagles' injury report in my newspaper the next Sunday morning reads like a dispatch from a war zone: 14 of the 53 players on the team’s roster are ailing in one way or another. Some, like defensive end Juqua Parker, down with a bad ankle, are out of action for the week. Others are listed as “questionable” or “probable” with injured feet, shoulders, knees, hamstrings, hips and fingers. It’s only the third week of the season, not even October yet, and the weather is still warm and muggy. Counting today’s matchup against the hated rival Giants, the Eagles have 14 regular season games to go.
Although a full one-quarter of the team is injured, the only name discussed by fans is that of Michael Vick, the superstar quarterback whose career has been revived and image rehabilitated in the two seasons since he was released from prison after serving 23 months on a federal conviction for being the owner and chief executive of a major dogfighting operation in his native Virginia. He is listed as “questionable” for today’s game.
NFL guidelines prevented Vick from going back into the game against Atlanta. His concussion came late in the third quarter with the Eagles up by three and only yards from a touchdown that soon put them up by ten points. The Falcons fought back, however, and Vick watched in the locker room as the game slipped away. One report said that trainers and coaches had to restrain Vick in order to keep him from returning to the field.
From where my friend Marcelo and I set up our tailgate in a $25 parking spot a good mile from Lincoln Financial Field, about two-and-half hours before the Eagles game against the Giants, I can see at least five fans in Vick jerseys, including a pasty thirtysomething of Herremans-ian dimensions who is smoking a cigarette while talking on his cellphone. I had started the day with the intention of taking photos of all the Vick jerseys—$84.99 before tax—I saw, but after seeing several at a convenience store before we even left my neighborhood, I knew I would give up early. I take the fat man’s photo and call it quits. Over the course of the day I’ll see in the high hundreds, if not more than a thousand, of that jersey.
In the week preceding this game the question of whether or not Vick would return lit up the airwaves of sports talk shows and filled many column inches of Philadelphia newspapers. The populace of Eagles nation demanded answers, and local sports reporters tried to provide them, focusing on the progress of Vick’s injured brain. (The Mayo Clinic definition: “A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions.”) Reports on Monday after the injury indicated that although the concussion was “mild,” Vick was highly questionable for the next game, and the team stated that he must go through a battery of tests to fulfill the NFL’s strict protocol regarding concussions, a recently enhanced guideline. Day two stories reported that Vick believed he was likely to play, that he was not seriously hurt, that he did well on his mental ability tests, but the team did not want to rush to judgment. By Wednesday it looked positive that he would see action, and by Thursday it was almost certain he would play even though he remained listed as “questionable.”
Not once during all the sports journalistic bluster in the Philadelphia media about Vick’s availability did I hear or read reporters recall any of the tragic, local stories about players who suffered concussions. Among these cases were longtime Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, who played for the team between 1984 and 1993 and earned the nickname “Dirty Waters.” He shot himself in November 2006 at the age of 44. A neuropathologist who studied Waters’ brain tissue said that the concussions Waters had suffered had caused his mental capacity to degenerate to that of an 85-year-old man in the early-stages of Alzheimer's disease. Waters is part of a growing list of more than twenty NFL players who had experienced concussions and were dead before their time after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition common to boxers, also known as dementia pugilistica. The degenerative disease disrupts the brain’s decision-making abilities.
The most blatant case of a concussion-related football death came in February 2011 when former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson wrote a suicide note that read: “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.” The “brain bank” is shorthand for Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the organization conducting research on the brains of dead players. Duerson, 50, by all accounts a gentleman who won both the NFL’s man of the year and humanitarian awards in the 1980's, knew something was wrong with his thought process. He shot himself in the chest in an act of forethought that preserved his brain for study. His suspicion that concussions had hampered his thinking proved to be accurate: doctors in Boston found that he, like Waters, was in the advanced stages of CTE.
In addition to Waters, Philadelphia also recently endured another tragedy possibly related to concussions. University of Pennsylvania lineman Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old player with no known history of depression or concussions, hanged himself in 2010 after a “sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse.” Boston University doctors who had been analyzing the brains of NFL players examined Thomas’ brain tissue and found that he was in the early stages of CTE. The case led to Congressional testimony by Thomas's mother, who lamented that his aggressive style of playing football caused the brain disease that may have hastened the end of his life. It was on the front page for a day or two.
But none of these local details made their way into pre-game stories in Philadelphia assessing Vick’s condition, including a reasonably thoughtful Sunday piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined “Head Games.” That story included quotes from a doctor about the dangers of concussions but also quoted Vick and several players on the Giants, all of them proclaiming they were aware of the risk without mentioning the cases of the dead and demented players. “I hope (Vick) protects himself,” Giants safety Deon Grant told New York reporters. “I hope he don’t go out there and do nothing stupid and mess himself up for the rest of his career.”
Vick sounded a realistic tone, acknowledging that serious injury is always a possibility in the game. “I’ll take precaution when I play,” Vick said in the days leading up to the game. “But it’s football, and it is what it is.”
Many fans, as Marcelo and I did, started early, arriving at the game hours before kick off to stake out a spot in the parking lot and go to work on coolers stocked with beer. Our ice-cold Yuenglings go down smooth. Marcelo, an Argentine who has lived in the Philly area for nine years and is in attendance at only his second football game, and I swap stories of friends and younger exploits and compare football in America and soccer in Argentina. He is baffled by the popularity of baseball but has come to love the American game of football. He wears an Eagles jersey, although he says he would never want his young son to grow up to play the game.
About 90 minutes before kickoff and a half-hour before noon, Marcelo and I each take a beer and embark on the long walk to the stadium though the mass of tailgaters. A whorl of barbecue smoke and loud dance music and pre-game chatter fills the air. Closer to the stadium there’s a convoy of decorated vehicles: a Mercury Grand Marquis that appears to have been hand-painted forest green with a four-inch wide house painting brush and then topped off with the Eagles emblem on the hood and an American flag covering the roof; a deep green van bedecked with Eagles flags the size of bed sheets; several short buses painted green, one labeled “Eagles Jitney.”
We come upon a party revolving around a tired eighties-era RV, outside of which a chubby balding white fellow of about thirty in khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt over a white crew T-shirt sings into to a wireless microphone and dances ecstatically to club music. He shouts into the blaring karaoke machine “Hey baby I like it” with the rhythm of that unbearable song, pumping his hips as if committing bestiality with a low pony. He acts as the emcee of a motley crew: a few sunburned old men standing there drinking and smiling and a few skinny young men, some a little twitchy, most shirtless and in jeans, all drinking and smoking. I watch one of the young men pluck a Corona from a cooler and down it in two gulps, and then get another and do the same. There are some women, too, in their twenties and even younger, not bad looking, dancing less enthusiastically and at a distance from the emcee, and a few others drinking and talking with young men. The old goats don’t seem to be talking, just observing, leering at the women when their elbows aren’t bent. Although the red-faced emcee is ecstatic and drunk with joy, he looks like an angry, oversized baby. It has the feel of something that might happen in the rec room of a mental hospital if the attendants were locked up and the patients dug into the pharmacy.
Marcelo and I head into the stadium, ditching empty beer bottles against a wall because there are no trash cans or recycling containers to be found even at this allegedly greenest of stadiums. The crowd around the gate is a mob scene, maybe thousands waiting to be frisked and hustled through the gates by security guards in yellow shirts. The guards are mostly men, as are the fans. A scowling Nurse Ratched type checks the bags of female fans, then pats them down for liquor bottles or handguns or grenades. The slur of voices has the guttural, elongated accent of Philly and South Jersey, sometimes bursting into the ubiquitous E-A-G-L-E-S cheer, a moronically simplistic spelling exercise. When a fan in a Giants jersey climbs up on a bench to look over the crowd, he elicits an oddly monk-like repetition of “ass-hole, ass-hole.” The band of deep voices repeats the word and lets it echo, the pause pulling it into two words, the crowd stretching both syllables as far as they will go.
We finally reach the front of the line after about half an hour of waiting. I get a cursory frisk—I could have easily snuck in a pint or two of bourbon in a Ziploc freezer bag taped to my leg, the way I did 25 years before at University of Georgia games, and for a moment I wish I had. The guard makes me remove the lens cap from my binoculars and shake them to for him. He's making sure that I’m not carrying a flask disguised as field glasses.
This football game is the biggest, most intense thing going in Philadelphia—not just today, but all year. At no other single event in this major American city at the center of a metropolitan area with almost six million residents, will almost 70,000 people gather together. At no other event will people so heartily drink and dance in the parking lot, abandoning their day-to-day reserve to release themselves to such bacchanalia.
The one man at the center of this great city’s greatest spectacle is Michael Vick. He is playing with a traumatic brain injury.
We arrive in our seats, $70 perches high above the end zone on the south end of the stadium, just before the kickoff. Our seats are directly above one of the two video screens, each 96 feet wide and 27 feet high. We look straight into the screen above the opposite end zone and see football and cheerleaders and advertisements projected onto 2,592-square feet of glorious high definition. After the craziness in the parking lot, the crowd is surprisingly very much like what I’ve known at many high school and college and pro games. Although this bunch is a little on the angrier side—this is Philadelphia, after all, and this is a football game—Marcelo says this scene is mellow compared to Argentine soccer crowds.
During a timeout after the Giants touchdown, the cheerleaders shake for all they are worth, 27-feet tall on the video screens. Their gyrations complete, the team selflessly devotes about 45 seconds of public announcement and video screen time to honor the memory of a Delaware police officer killed only 10 days before by giving his stunned family the game ball. The crowd stands and applauds, but soon the survivors of Sgt. Joseph Szczerba flicker off the video screens; they sit down with the football commemorating their dead husband and son and brother and the crowd turns its attention back to the field of play. The stadium’s communal anger resumes as if someone has flipped a switch.
I focus on Vick. I’ve seen him play many times, the most memorable for me being the 2000 NCAA championship game in which a then-19-year-old Vick led underdog Virginia Tech against Florida State. In the sports book of the old Desert Inn, I bet $150 on Vick’s Hokies, getting six-and-a-half points. Although they held a lead of 29-28 beginning the fourth quarter and Vick played brilliantly—eluding gangs of Florida State tacklers like a phantom—Tech's defense was overmatched. The Hokies lost by 17 points and I lost my $150.
Near the end of the second quarter, during a frantic moment in which the Eagles backs and receivers try to rush off the field so the kicker can set up for a field goal before the half expires, Vick just stands there, seemingly completely zoned out, until an assistant coach grabs his arm and ushers him to the sideline. My friend Martin Frank of the News-Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, covered the game and noted the foggy moment; he asked Vick what happened after the game, and Vick told him there was nothing to it.
In the third quarter Vick releases a pass and takes a head-high hit from Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty that more than knocks him down—Vick rolls back so far that for a moment all that touches the turf are his shoulders and the back of his head, his legs and feet in the air as though he might flip. Instead he rolls forward into a sitting position, then immediately puts both hands to his helmet. He drops them to his facemask before wearily rising and leaving the field. This was, we learned later, the play on which he reportedly hurt his non-throwing hand, an injury reported by the team on Sunday as a broken bone, then downgraded into a contusion on Monday. In the replay, Vick doesn’t grab or even look at his hand as soon as he goes down—his hands go straight to his head.
The fans are not happy in the fourth quarter when they hear their star quarterback is done for the day with a broken right hand. “Come on Vick, take an aspirin!” a man in my section yells, repeating it again and again to laughter from the crowd. “Take an aspirin and get back in the fucking game! You are left-handed!” The man keeps yelling and I think of the vault at Boston University and its growing collection of players’ brains, brains that have been sliced into thin sections and studied for dark splotches caused by concussions and collisions to the head. I feel a little sick as the fan near me continues to yell at Vick to get back in the game. Even though I long ago gave up gambling on football and never bet heavily, I once bet on Michael Vick, as surely as he bet on his own competitions. I'm surprised by a sudden sympathy for Vick, a player I've never liked and have, in recent years, truly despised.
Without Vick, the Eagles can’t move the ball and game slips away. The heckling fan continues as if he could go on forever. “Come on!” he yells at Vick, even though the quarterback has by that point vanished into the locker room. “You are getting one hundred million fucking dollars! Take an aspirin! You’ll be fine!”