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Michael Vick doesn’t know it, but he cost me a friendship of over 20 years.

When two of my college girlfriends came to Philadelphia a few days after Christmas last year, it was supposed to be a joyous visit. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. My one girlfriend – let’s call her Lia – had her teenage son in tow, a lovely young man quickly transitioning from boyhood to manhood, and I was particularly looking forward to seeing him. It was also to be a belated celebration for my other friend – let’s call her Jackie – and her graduation from law school months earlier. Almost two decades after getting her B.A., she’d returned to school for a law degree.

It was going to be fun hanging out with them and showing them the city sights. And that’s how the day went – at first.

For much of the afternoon, Jackie and I were having an ongoing discussion about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. She is and always has been a huge sports fan, an interest we’d shared over basketball games and team rivalries. Jackie has always been a no-nonsense, opinionated, blunt person, traits that work in her favor in her new career as a lawyer.

Vick bothered Jackie. While she agreed that he should be able to pursue his career, she said he couldn’t root for him. On the contrary, after two decades of living amidst some of the most loyal and rabid NFL fans in the league, I’d finally given in and become an Eagles fan. Vick would be the third black quarterback in a row to be the team’s shot caller, an interesting scenario in a predominantly black city where working-class whites, who made up the bulk of the diehard fans, often felt marginalized. Vick’s crimes proved too much for even some of the most devoted Eagles fans, some of whom decamped after his signing.

This non-diehard fan had just the opposite reaction. Vick’s electrifying 2010-2011 comeback season was just too beautiful to ignore. It was a story that was equal parts redemption, fate and glory and, in my view, was one of the best sports stories in a long time.

My girlfriend didn’t agree, to say the least. But as fate would have it, there would be a conclusion to this story that neither of us could have possibly foreseen.

As our running dialogue continued into the early evening, with each of us respectfully conceding each other’s point of view, the pretty unbelievable happened via the human form of one Michael Dwayne Vick. A casual stop at a South Philadelphia Target store to return some unwanted Christmas gifts would prove to be the final countdown to the last hours of a long-time friendship.

As Lia and I headed to whatever aisle it was to look for something I don’t even remember, I overheard an excited Target salesgirl. It was probably the tone more than the words that struck me. I said, “Did I miss something?”

She said, “Michael Vick is in the next aisle.”

She couldn’t have surprised me more had she said Prince was performing in the parking lot.

I peeked into the aisle, and there he was, casually dressed in grey sweats minus entourage, publicists or anyone else, shopping more or less like a normal person, not like the record-setting QB of a major sports team.  (His fiancée and children were with him, but in another aisle.)

Given that Lia’s son was a 14-year-old who played several sports and was a regular attendee at NFL, NBA and MLB games, I thought he’d want a picture. I was right. I caught up with him and …..

his mother, and they ran toward the small but growing crowd at the register where Vick was quietly checking out. Although he was initially reluctant as a small crowd built, when he saw my friend’s son, he agreed to pose for a picture. In it, you see Vick, a child’s toy in his hand, smiling, with both my girlfriend’s son and his two daughters in the picture. He signed a very neat autograph, and we all went on our way, us to track down Jackie to tell her what happened.

That’s when things went left.

Jackie thought – or says she thought – that we were mocking her when we ran up to her, laughing, to tell her what happened. We were still in disbelief ourselves. When my friend’s son showed her the autograph of Vick’s he’s garnered, she crumpled it up.

Then, it got ugly.

A screaming match ensued. Lia and her son were in tears, while friends of two decades faced off over Vick and everything else they’d had issue with. (I guess there’s something else to blame on Michael Vick.) And in case you care, Lia, who was fine with the autograph, is white. Jackie is black. So much for stereotypes.

But here’s the thing. I don’t feel bad at all. I accept that my girlfriend and I are simply at different places in our lives and probably have been for some time. I am absolutely, positively a Michael Vick fan and supporter. I am clear that what he did was wrong, but people do egregious, hateful and ugly things all the time. I don’t have the “but they’re just dogs” argument for you, because anything alive with a heartbeat is deserving of that life and it’s natural end. (Except rodents.) I don’t have the “black man should be supported no matter how wrong they are because of slavery, and blah blah blah” because we’re too often seeing the results of allowing some black men to believe they are above taking responsibility for their actions.  I just have this: Michael Vick made a mistake. He owned up to it, took the punishment for it and has agreed to speak out against it.

Now, let the man live.

He has a God-given talent that he, by the grace of that same God, has been allowed to refine and use to feed his family and to give others, who have also certainly made mistakes, a feeling of hope. He has gracefully accepted his role as a leader, stayed away from controversy and been an exemplary football player, on and off the field. If you look at his demeanor before his conviction, you’ll see an arrogant young man convinced of his gifts, but not convinced that he had to work to retain them. In his demeanor now, if you’ve been privileged enough to see his press conferences, you see a completely different man. He brings his A-game and his skills to the field on any given Sunday and reaches for the best in himself. That is all I need him to do.

Vick’s still a young man, just turning 31 this year. With the kind of scrutiny he’s under, he may yet make more mistakes. There’s no prescribed limit on missteps, no matter who you are. Look at rap star T.I. as an example. You would hope that after losing his liberty, his home, his family, his livelihood and his income, Michael Vick will do better. But people are fallible, and his continued evolution as a man is up to no one else but him and God.

You can best believe that come this football season, if one is played,

will be rooting for Vick – and all of us who’ve ever stepped wrongly, made a mistake, done something or someone wrong, disappointed anyone, hurt anyone or yes, killed, maimed, or caused injury to any living creature. Because in Vick’s redemption song, there is a message for us all.

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