For Vick, once a quarterback, always a quarterback

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Breaking news: Michael Vick is a quarterback.

All right, there is other breaking news about Vick, not long out of federal prison and freshly reinstated to play in the NFL. He officially joined the Philadelphia Eagles Friday and he is, as it turns out, there to play quarterback, the position he’s played all his life, and incredibly well for the most part.

His new head coach, Andy Reid, has said Vick is a quarterback. Donovan McNabb, his new teammate, said so. Ike Reese, his former teammate, said it. People who know pro football say it.

Yet for an alarmingly large portion of the public and media, this point is in hot dispute. Shouldn’t he be a running back or wide receiver, or play that new, innovative (some might say gimmicky) hybrid concocted last season, the Wildcat?

Because, that theory explains, he’s so “athletic.’’ And, you know, he’s not very bright. He never quite showed the qualities we’re used to seeing in NFL quarterbacks. Lousy quarterback rating. Inaccurate passing.

Sadly, there are fans out there too young to realize that this campaign of misinformation -about a player who, among other feats, once beat Brett Favre at Green Bay’s legendary Lambeau Field in a January playoff game, and once took his Atlanta Falcons to within one game of the Super Bowl – is an updated version of an old story told way too many times.

For nearly the entire history of the sport players of African descent were told that they were not intelligent enough and didn’t display the leadership qualities needed to be quarterbacks. In 2007, the New York Times’ Bill Rhoden penned a book entitled Third and a Mile about the struggle faced by black quarterbacks in overcoming ‘the sports world’s staunchest racial barrier’. At the time of publication, he listed every black quarterback who had thrown a minimum of eight passes in an AFL or NFL game in history, and the list took up only two pages.

Warren Moon, the first black quarterback to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was not drafted at all when he came out of college in 1978, despite winning the Rose Bowl, and had to prove himself in the Canadian League for seven years before joining the NFL. This only touches on how few were allowed to play quarterback in college, or who chose to go to small black colleges because the major programs wanted them to change positions in order to play for them.

A black quarterback was not taken in the first round of the NFL draft until 1978 and in 1988, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to play in and win a Super Bowl. Vick’s mentor in his comeback, former head coach Tony Dungy, was himself ordered to switch to defensive back in the NFL after playing quarterback in college. That was a common practice until the 1990s, when being black and playing quarterback was still seen as an oddity.

A number of academic studies been done on this topic and testimony has been given to Congress on how blacks were systematically excluded from the position, and how the position was deemed as one of intelligence that the black players were not deemed to possess. Often, they were allowed to play only if the offensive system emphasized their running ability, rather than their passing, play-calling, decision-making or leadership. This wasn’t a theory, it was an open secret.

The stereotype seemingly had been dismantled by the early part of the decade, by performers such as McNabb and the late Steve McNair. Both reached Super Bowls, and established that the best, if not only, criteria for judging the position is winning.

Still, even as he won, Vick’s very presence made many uncomfortable, as he was so antithetical to the image passed down through the years of how a quarterback should throw, run, stand – and look. Less hidebound thinkers saw him as the next evolutionary step at the position, taking those same physical skills used to damn him and his predecessors and proving them to be an asset.

For the most part, he was that – until he did something undeniably stupid. In all fairness, observers might be projecting their feelings about someone with everything throwing it away so pointlessly, believing that a brainlock that large has to carry over to the field.
Plausible – but not enough to explain making a move so fraught with historical and psychological baggage, when the facts don’t support it.

Indictment, imprisonment and widespread humiliation and scorn almost certainly shook Michael Vick to his very core in numerous ways. But in spite of the societal and cultural forces trying to change him, none of that has made him any other kind of football player besides the one he’s always been: a quarterback.

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