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What Michael Vick meant on the field and off

With the hair, the ‘hood, the swagger, he was a litmus test for black acceptability in white space

The human cheat code is finally powering down.

On Feb. 3, former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick announced his retirement from the NFL. After 13 seasons over 16 years, Vick is calling it quits.

You’ll hear good and bad about Vick over the next few days — from his arrival as the No. 1 pick to his downfall for running a dogfighting ring. But one cannot forget what No. 7 meant to football fans growing up in the new millennium.

No matter who is the true black Superman — Dwight Howard? Shaquille O’Neal? — Vick is surely our Flash. He was a living oxymoron: a superhero, yet so human at the same time. On one hand, who could forget that run against the Minnesota Vikings or that win at Lambeau Field or that performance against the Washington Redskins? On the other hand: a laundry list of transgressions.

As much as many like to disconnect race from sports, Vick was the litmus test for black acceptability in a white space such as the quarterback position. He was from the ‘hood, had the hair and the swagger, yet could run over, around and through any competition. He marched into Lambeau Field and became the first road quarterback in history to win a playoff game there.

His contributions can’t be measured just in yards, touchdowns or playoff games won. He was the culture before it became popular terminology. He made you want to rock cornrows, a headband on a football field, and a helmet visor even if you had 20/20 vision. When throwbacks were the craze in the early 2000s, Vick’s No. 7 Falcons jersey was the only current player jersey — sans Randy Moss, perhaps — you would see around schoolyards and the mall. It’s no coincidence the Atlanta home jerseys were all black. No coincidence that he debuted in the NFL just one year after the release of Any Given Sunday: He was Willie Beamen.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (7) looks downfield for a receiver during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. on Sept. 25, 2005.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (No. 7) looks downfield for a receiver during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. on Sept. 25, 2005.

Robert Skeoch/NFLPhotoLibrary

Vick was hip-hop, gang culture and streetball all wrapped up into one world-class athlete. He was the Allen Iverson of the gridiron. It was only fitting that he be drafted to the city of Atlanta.

For a metropolitan area that encompasses 1.7 million black people, Atlanta was like home away from home for Vick, who grew up in Newport News, Virginia. He embodied the DNA of all 132 square miles of Atlanta, from College Park to Buckhead, the “unofficial capital of the South for black America.” My colleague Aaron Dodson pointed this out recently:

“It was Vick’s jersey that Dupri wore in the “Welcome to Atlanta” music video. Vick appeared in T.I.’s video for his 2003 track “Rubber Band Man,” and the quarterback’s name found its way into verses spit by nearly every Atlanta rapper making music in the mid-2000s.”

Vick even made it cool for ATLiens to rock Falcons jerseys.

“He’s done what has been all but impossible for the last 40 years: He’s made Atlanta, one of the five most pathetic franchises in NFL history, exciting. Since 2003, the Falcons have sold every seat for the season weeks before opening day, and that’s entirely about Vick,” ESPN host Bomani Jones wrote in 2006.

While he only spent six seasons with the Falcons, Vick could headline any Atlanta Hall of Fame class, right up there with Martin Luther King Jr., President Jimmy Carter and Donald Glover. He was the first black quarterback to be drafted No. 1 overall, twice led the Falcons to the playoffs, and broke the quarterback rushing record for a single game (173 yards). With the flick of the wrist, he could launch a pass 60 yards downfield, or — with his head-turning speed — take off for a 20-yard scamper as if he was taking out the trash. That led to the historic 2006 season — his last in Atlanta — where Vick became the first and only quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (by the time Vick retired, he was the all-time leader in quarterback rushing yards by more than 1,000 yards). As one-third of the dreaded “DVD” backfield in Atlanta, Vick was arguably the best rusher among running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett.

And for the kid who grew up in public housing, Vick made it cool — and possible — for African-Americans to play quarterback. For generations, black kids have been told to switch from quarterback to running back, wide receiver or defensive back. He made the quarterback position attainable for kids who could run a 4.40 40-yard dash, encouraging countless blacktop signal-callers who couldn’t wait for you to get to “three Mississippi” so they could take off. From a man who grew up watching Randall Cunningham, Kordell Stewart and Fran Tarkenton, Vick has influenced many other young signal-callers over the last decade. Whether it’s professionals such as former MVP Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Tyrod Taylor or Vince Young, or college stars Denard Robinson, Pat White and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, you can sense Vick in every one of them.

Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles is greeted by fans of the Atlanta Falcons before the game at Georgia Dome on December 6, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Michael Vick (No. 7) of the Philadelphia Eagles is greeted by Atlanta Falcons fans before the game at Georgia Dome on Dec. 6, 2009, in Atlanta.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No matter how well Griffin and Colin Kaepernick played in 2012, or Russell Wilson in 2013 or Newton in 2015, Vick was always ground zero, Patient X. His success led to a record-setting nine black quarterbacks starting on opening day of the 2013 season, and he wasn’t even the best. Except for the New England Patriots-Falcons, four of the last Super Bowls have featured a black mobile quarterback.

And then there was Madden. The long-running video game franchise had just started putting players on its cover at the turn of the millennium, but the 2004 version was … different. Vick had just come off a 24-touchdown sophomore season that included 777 rushing yards, which at the time was the most by a quarterback since 1990. And while Vick wasn’t the first black quarterback to grace Madden’s cover, as writer David Dennis Jr. noted, he signaled a “readiness from the masses for a black quarterback as the face of the NFL — something black America had been awaiting for decades.”

Aside from being one of the fastest characters in the game, the Madden version of Vick had one of the strongest arms and could evade tacklers such as present-day Le’Veon Bell. He was an And-1 mixtape with a pigskin, reminiscent of a sketch from Chappelle’s Show. He was totally unfair. It was almost as if the juke function on the joystick was created specifically for him.

“People love … to tell me their ‘Vick in Madden’ stories. About how they ran for 500 yards in one game. Or about how they broke the touchdown record in a season, 10 times over. They’ll tell me that I was like a blur of a blur. That I was a human cheat code,” Vick recently wrote at The Players’ Tribune. To illustrate how much Vick transcended the faceless sport of professional football, he would’ve been the only player to grace the Madden cover multiple times had there not been protest votes in 2011 that paved the way for forgotten (white) running back Peyton Hillis.

And, to be clear, the protests were warranted. In 2007, Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison after pleading guilty to federal conspiracy charges for his role in a dogfighting operation that included electrocutions, hangings and drownings of underperforming pit bulls. What Vick did was disgusting and reprehensible. But his subsequent conviction and postrelease turmoil said more about his race than the crime for which he spent nearly two years in prison.

Recent works of art such as Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Ava Duvernay’s 13th, and Department of Justice reports from Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco, have supported findings that blacks receive disproportionately harsher prison sentences than whites for similar crimes. And once those prison sentences are served, blacks are permanently stamped with their convictions long after leaving their prison cells. The dogfighting saga was half a decade before #BlackLivesMatter, but Vick’s case proved that dog lives mattered more than the lives of African-Americans.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting conspiracy that involved gambling and killing pit bulls. Vick pleaded guilty in August, admitting he bankrolled the 'Bad Newz Kennels' dogfighting operation and helped kill six to eight dogs. He has been held at a jajil in Warsaw, VA, since he voluntarily began serving his sentence.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting conspiracy that involved gambling and killing pit bulls. Vick pleaded guilty in August, admitting he bankrolled the Bad Newz Kennels’ dogfighting operation and helped kill six to eight dogs. He has been held at a jail in Warsaw, Virginia, since he voluntarily began serving his sentence.

Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images

Vick cleaned up his act after leaving prison. He worked closely with The Humane Society of the United States and has advocated for the eradication of animal cruelty across the country. In 2009, he won the Ed Block Courage Award and a year later took home the NFL’s comeback player of the year award.

Vick’s ability to read defenses was always questionable, his accuracy was almost nonexistent (career 56.2 completion percentage), and he was a bit of a knucklehead (flipping off fans, allegations of weed possession at a Miami airport, the unfortunate Ron Mexico alias) but he was a magician on the football field. He went to prison during his prime, incurring $142 million in financial losses, came back and had the best season of his career in 2010, and then signed another $100 million deal. He never made the Super Bowl, but that never really mattered to us.

The way some black people admired Vick was how we were when Denzel Washington won that Academy Award, or when Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx and Three 6 Mafia did. It’s how some black people will be on Sunday while watching the Oscars, rooting for Hidden Figures, Fences and Moonlight. It’s how some black people cherish Viola Davis, Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey. Or how we felt when President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walked alongside that limo eight years ago. Or Serena Williams crip walking in front of all those white faces at the Olympics. Or even Katherine Johnson at NASA, invading a white space.

Those are a lot of examples, but there’s no one way to explain what Vick meant to a lot of black people. He just did. And now he’s gone — not likely to make it into the Hall of Fame. But, as is the case with the Super Bowl, that doesn’t matter.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"