- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Michael Vick is in the fourth stage of his career. We've witnessed the rise, the fall and the comeback, and we wonder how it will end for one of the most polarizing athletes in our nation's history. Is there a happily-ever-after in his future? Does he deserve one?
Vick sat in front of his locker Thursday, pondering the questions. His dream finish, he decided, is to win a championship for the first time in his life. Yes, he believes it could happen with the New York Jets, but there's a twist. In his football fantasy, he's not the Jets' savior -- and he's OK with that.
"Me winning a Super Bowl, even if it's not me behind the center," said Vick, describing the ultimate end to his playing days. "If I can walk away from this game with a ring, I'll be so thankful, because I've never won a championship at none of the levels that I've played on. Almost had one in college. I want a ring.
"I think it can happen this year," he continued. "I think Geno [Smith] can take us where we need to go. It'll seal my legacy -- for me, myself. For the public, I don't know."
As he previously stated, Vick expects Smith to be the Jets' opening-day starter. Evidently, he thinks Smith is ready to make a quantum improvement in his second year, but that remains to be seen. It's quite possible that, at some point, the Jets will turn to Vick, and wouldn't that be a must-see event?
It happened with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, when he won NFL Comeback Player of the Year, but this is a new stage with a new audience, and another cynical fan base to win over. He's taking an unselfish approach, painting himself as the wise old mentor, but it doesn't take long into the conversation to sense that Vick absolutely believes he's still got it.
"I revolutionized the game," he said in a wide-ranging interview with ESPN.com. "I changed the way it was played in the NFL."
But that was when he was a young blur, a freakishly talented two-way threat. Vick, who turns 34 on Thursday, acknowledged he's not that guy anymore. But he doesn't see himself sliding into a rocking chair anytime soon. He still feels he can win a Super Bowl for somebody.
"I think it's still realistic," he said. "You got guys like Peyton [Manning] and [Tom] Brady and Drew [Brees], all 36, 37, 38 years old and still playing. Times have changed. It's all about taking care of your body. ... I still feel like I can move as fast -- not as fast as I could a long time ago, but enough to get away. With that, I can help a football team win games. I can help our football team win games."
If the quarterback "competition" plays out as expected, Vick will begin the season on the bench, backing up a player -- Smith -- who was 12 years old when Vick won a playoff game on Green Bay's frozen tundra. Just because Vick might be a backup doesn't mean he considers himself one.
"I still consider myself one of the 32 [top quarterbacks]," he said. "People might want to argue that, but I think there are a lot of people who understand where I come from when I say that. I've been playing at a high level for a long time.
"Even the last two years when I got hurt, if you look at the résumé before I got hurt, I was playing at a high level. At some point, I'm going to get through 16 games and I'm going to be accountable. My primary focus is to keep my body in shape and keep going."
Vick added four pounds in the offseason (all muscle, he said), hoping to improve his durability. Only once has he played a full season, and that came in 2006, his final season with the Atlanta Falcons.
His career -- his life -- started to unravel in the spring of 2007, during an investigation into his involvement in a dogfighting ring in his home state of Virginia. That led to 23 months in a federal prison, costing him a full two seasons and permanently tarnishing his reputation.
Vick's felonious past was dredged up again in March, when the Jets signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract. The blowback wasn't nearly as severe as it was when he signed with the Eagles in 2009, but it prompted a group in Cortland, New York -- home of the Jets' training camp -- to start a petition aiming to ban him from camp. More than 20,000 signed the online petition.
Vick said he had no reaction when he heard about it.
"Why? Why would I? My life has nothing to do with their life and their beliefs," he said. "I mean, what's done is done. Look at all the good. My message to them is, look at the good I've done, all the thousands of lives that I've saved, the people I've saved. That's most important. That's what the focus should be on, the lives that are being affected."
He was alluding to his charitable foundation, which helps at-risk youth. Just last weekend, Vick held a youth camp and charity softball game in his hometown, Newport News, Virginia.
"I think 90 percent of the world has [forgiven me]," he said. "I walk around every day and I have no complaints from nobody -- ever."
Well, there was a recent episode at a Manhattan nightspot, in which Vick was approached by a heckler. The person was immediately removed by security, the entire scene caught on a video that found its way to TMZ.com. Vick called it a misunderstanding.
"All he was trying to do was show me a picture of his dog, and I thought he was trying to bring up some past history," Vick said. "So I was out of context in that situation. I was like, 'Look, man ...' He just wanted me to look at his dog on the phone. That was my fault. Other than that, it's never happened."
A public confrontation regarding dogs, he meant.
"It doesn't bother me," Vick said. "I think we're six or seven years removed from that, and so much has transpired since then in my life. It's something I try not to even think about. I just try to continue to be an advocate against animal cruelty."
Vick wants the focus to be on football. He's naïve if he thinks fans will forget about his sordid past, but he certainly can change some opinions by succeeding on the field. The Jets' fan base is starved (45 years since Super Bowl III), and it's waiting for someone -- anyone -- to deliver another championship.
He hopes the fans can embrace him.
"That's what it's all about, it's all about football," Vick said. "It's all about helping these guys accomplish something that I know they can accomplish, and I think we should let bygones be bygones. Never forget about it, but try to improve amongst it and keep going."
The Jets are happy with Vick, especially his former coordinator from the Eagles, Marty Mornhinweg, who said his old pupil is "still a dynamic player." Vick is well-respected in the locker room, especially among the younger players, many of whom grew up idolizing him.
"He's been through life," Smith said. "He's been a guy who's bounced back. One thing that I noticed off the bat from talking to him awhile back is that he's extremely humble. He's a guy that's giving. He has a ton of knowledge and he's trying to give that knowledge to young guys like myself, which is why we all gravitate to him. We all look up to him."
Vick has been through life, all right. He's made a lot of mistakes -- bad ones -- and if he could somehow turn back the clock and give advice to a young Michael Vick, he'd tell him to change his habits and pick his friends carefully.
"I've always prided myself on being a mentally strong individual," he said. "I can almost adapt to any situation. There's nothing in my life that I haven't seen."