- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Michael Vick was talking about his greatest achievement as an NFL quarterback, and it had nothing to do with the time he beat Brett Favre in a playoff game at Lambeau Field. This was about saving a rookie coach's team and a wide receiver's career in the early hours of training camp, and it was all right there in black and white.
Vick was sitting on a bench inside the New York Jets' practice facility two days before his return to Philadelphia for Thursday night's cameo preseason start, and he was recalling the moment he first heard last summer that something was up. He was walking from a meeting back to the Eagles' locker room when a teammate asked if he had seen the video that was starting to go viral on the Web, the sights and sounds of a man fueled by anger and alcohol, Riley Cooper saying what he said about that African-American security guard at that Kenny Chesney concert.
"And when I'd seen it I didn't believe it," Vick told ESPNNewYork.com. "I couldn't even see him fixing his face to say that because I'd known him for three years."
"When I'd seen it I didn't believe it. I couldn't even see him fixing his face to say that because I'd known him for three years."Michael Vick
But it was true, all true. Despite the fact that the vast majority of his colleagues are black, Cooper used the N-word to describe the guard and other African-Americans at the concert he was threatening to fight, dropping an ungodly mess in the lap of the team leader who would handle it with the same dignity and grace that the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers, showed in managing the Donald Sterling crisis the following spring.
Only Rivers was a 52-year-old authority figure with a long history of right-minded leadership. Vick? He was a 33-year-old quarterback coming off a 3-7 season as a starter and, of course, he wasn't that far removed from serving 19 months in federal prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring.
"I just felt like I was the most capable guy on that team of taking a stand for Riley, and being a voice for him at that time," Vick said. Without taking that stand and being that voice, Vick maintained, the video of Cooper's racial slur "was going to derail our team. Unfortunately, it was going to derail Riley's career. It would have ended his career."
And so an established black star did a remarkable thing for a marginal white player whose production (an average of 15.3 receptions and 226.3 yards per year over his first three seasons) suggested he wasn't worth the trouble. Vick said he needed about an hour after learning of Cooper's slur to decide how to respond, and what he would say to younger black teammates who grew up idolizing him as the face of the Atlanta Falcons and the force behind dynamic change at the quarterback position in the NFL.
After Cooper apologized to teammates who weren't in the mood to hear it, rookie coach Chip Kelly addressed his players about a problem he couldn't attack with X's and O's. Kelly asked the Eagles if any of them wanted to speak; Cooper wasn't in the room.
"Nobody had anything to say," Vick recalled. "Everybody had kind of a dumbfounded look on their faces. ... I just felt like something needed to be said at that point, and Chip kind of gave me a look like, 'Mike, come on. Give me something.'"
So Mike gave him something even though Vick's brother, Marcus, had tweeted the offer of $1,000 for the first safety who flattened Cooper (Marcus would delete the tweet), and even though LeSean McCoy would say he'd lost respect for the receiver. The quarterback who once asked millions of fans for forgiveness over his crime of cruelty was asking dozens of players to forgive Cooper for his show of ignorance and hate.
As for the Eagles who couldn't find room in their hearts for forgiveness, Vick was asking them to respect the needs of a football team that couldn't survive a compound fracture along racial lines.
"I stood in front of the team," Vick said. "I stood in front of the cameras and defused that whole situation."
Vick knew there would be a price to pay for assuming the role of Cooper's human shield.
"Guys were mad at me for a while," he said of fellow Eagles. "They were upset with me for a day or two, like six or seven guys who were just like, 'Really, how could you do that?' And then I'm getting phone calls from people everywhere, and my Twitter page is kind of in an uproar. But I took that stand for him, man, and I just hope at the end of the day that he appreciates that.
"I just hope he's [appreciative] of my boldness to step out in front of the world and say what I said, and he appreciates what I did and understands the magnitude of it, because nobody else was going to step up and say anything. I could've said the same thing that 25 of my teammates were saying, and there was built-up anger."
Cooper did immediately text Vick a message of thanks for his support in the meeting room and in the news media. But after he told reporters "it was easy to forgive" Cooper, Vick wondered if something changed.
The receiver ended up having a breakthrough season, finishing with 47 receptions for 835 yards and 8 touchdowns and landing a five-year, $25 million deal. In fact, Cooper actually outperformed Vick, who lost his starting job to injury and then watched Nick Foles go on a tear and lead Philadelphia to the playoffs.
"A couple of things transpired since [the incident] that I dislike, and I'll be honest with you," Vick said. "After he signed his contract, I sent him a text and I never got a text back, and that made me feel a certain type of way. But I'm not the type of guy who holds grudges."
Vick said he told his former teammate he was proud of him in the text that wasn't returned. When it was suggested to him that any white player in Cooper's shoes should owe the quarterback an eternal debt of gratitude, Vick said, "I'd have you on speed dial. That's the only reason I say I hope Riley appreciates that. His life is his life and he played good football last year, and he was always like a little brother to me. But money should never change an individual, and I'm not saying it did that to Riley."
Vick said he was planning on greeting Cooper warmly Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field, and as it turned out, according to the quarterback's spokesperson, they ended up talking by phone Wednesday. Chris Shigas said he didn't know which party placed the call, or what prompted it, or whether Cooper offered an explanation about the unreturned text, or whether the receiver reminded Vick that he did send a congratulatory text after he signed with the Jets.
But the spokesperson said Vick informed him that the call was productive. "They're all good," Shigas said.
On Tuesday, Vick recalled the scene of Cooper eating alone in the days after the video's release, a pariah to black and white teammates both. The quarterback said that without the personal growth he experienced in prison, he wouldn't have been "competent enough" to handle the toxic Cooper controversy, and that his Eagles needed only two weeks to move past it.
"A couple of things transpired since [the incident] that I dislike, and I'll be honest with you. After he signed his contract, I sent him a text and I never got a text back, and that made me feel a certain type of way."Michael Vick
"They might not have forgotten about it, but they forgave him," Vick said. "We had guys talking about knocking him out, taking his head off, doing X, Y and Z to him on the field, and none of that happened, out of respect for myself, I think.
"What people of my race understood was that I was trying to protect one of my brothers. I was trying to protect a teammate, a friend, and at the same time letting them know that, 'Listen, there's education behind this. This can be taken as an opportunity to educate so many people around the world to never let this happen to you. Change the language. Use a different word ... because you never know who's watching or who's listening. So don't offend anybody.'"
Vick said that he grew up in a culture allowing for liberal use of the N-word among African-Americans, and that he has occasionally slipped and used it in casual conversation with black friends. He's trying to eliminate the word altogether. He's not a perfect man or quarterback, but he's come a long, long way.
Now he's showing the same professionalism behind Jets starter Geno Smith that he showed behind Foles; Eagles coaches and front-office officials thanked him profusely for the way he conducted himself last year as a second-stringer. But it was after Cooper's vile slur went public that Vick showed as much leadership as any NFL quarterback has shown in any setting. Ever.
"It's the best thing I've done as a professional athlete, absolutely," Vick said. "I handled it so my team could move forward, and I handled it so people could forget about it and not look at Riley a certain kind of way. I changed the whole dynamic of that situation, and that was a proud moment for me. ... I was able to save a young man's career, and that young man went on to have the greatest year of his career and get a contract that he probably never imagined he would get."
No, Vick doesn't want any finder's fee for that contract. The quarterback just wants to know that his scrambling, under intense fire, has been fully appreciated.