(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
Count me among those who believe that Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons has the talent to revolutionize the quarterback position and carry the NFL to places only previously occupied by Michael Jordan and the NBA.
The comparison to Jordan is nothing new, but it is accurate. In fact, I think the search for the ‘next’ Jordan should end because this version likes to play football.
Vick is electrifying. He’s one of those players that make you stop what you’re doing every time he has the ball. At any moment he is likely to perform a feat of athletic prowess that may never be duplicated and only seen again on the highlight shows.
He runs the ball better than 70-percent of the running backs in the NFL, and I for one believe that his arm strength is impressive. He throws beautiful, tight spirals and when his accuracy catches up to the rest of his abilities, there’s no telling what he will be able to accomplish.
But last Sunday I had an epiphany. While watching Oakland battle the Cowboys, I saw that Vick had been injured while scrambling against the Vikings. As I sat on the couch and watched Vick being attended to, I wondered to myself if he will ever reach his potential. (I also thought about how this would affect my prediction that they were going to the Super Bowl. I might have to write a column someday about how I’m giving the Sports Illustrated cover jinx a run for its money.)
What a travesty for football fans everywhere if we’re cheated out of seeing possibly the most breathtaking player in the history of the NFL reach his potential. What if my son and his children and so on won’t be able to talk about Vick the way my generation talked about Jim Brown, Joe Namath, and O.J. Simpson (pre-homicidal maniac era)?
Seeing his injury Sunday isn’t some knee-jerk (well, maybe jerk) reaction. In his first four seasons, Vick has only played in 43 out of a possible 64 games. Some may argue it’s due to his reckless, scrambling, always-on-the-run style, but I disagree.
Brett Favre has played in arguably the most physical division of pro football for 15 years and hasn’t missed a start in 13. While he isn’t the runner that Vick is – who is by the way – he’s no stranger to carrying the ball. He has touchdown runs of 35, 36 and 40-yards to his credit, and has averaged over 3.5 yards per carry six times.
Vick’s durability got me to thinking about other sports stars who flamed out because of injury, and two close to my heart and home immediately came to mind.
The first name I thought of was Bo Jackson. Everyone knows I’m an unabashed Auburn fan but add to that the facts that he played minor league baseball in Memphis, and then played football for Oakland, makes him one of my most favorite sports stars ever.
Jackson played baseball before suiting up in black and became a feared hitter (hitting 32 homers and 105 RBI in 1989) and an outstanding fielder (.962 career fielding percentage) thanks to his howitzer he called an arm.
Bored with making big league pitchers and hitters look bush league, he decided to try the NFL. As a part-time Raider he rushed for 2,782 yards on 515 carries (5.4 avg) and became the first running back with two touchdowns of 90 yards or more. (Everyone remembers the 91-yarder on Monday night in Seattle.)
He was also the first athlete to play in the all-star game of two professional sports, and it all ended with one freak injury. In 1991 he led the Raiders to the playoffs and a tackle by a Cincinnati Bengal damaged his hip and eventually ruined his career.
What if he would have kept playing? I think he would have been a mortal lock for not one but two Hall of Fame plaques.
The second player that I’m reminded of when thinking about injuries is Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway. Of course, Penny played high school in Memphis (at my mom’s Alma Mata of Treadwell) and suited up collegiately for the Tigers after spurning the Hogs.
He was so good in college that no less than Larry Bird and Bobby Knight said he was the most impressive player they had seen in decades. As a sophomore he led a group of college players to a win in a scrimmage against the newly formed Dream Team.
Penny declared for the draft after his junior year, and impressed Shaquille O’Neal so much in workouts that he had the Magic trade away the rights to Chris Webber for him.
Teamed with O’Neal, Hardaway and the Magic made the NBA Finals in his second year, and Penny was named to two consecutive All-NBA teams.
After Shaq bolted for L.A., Hardaway was still an elite member of the NBA until injuries and misdiagnoses of those injuries took his explosiveness away. He is still a heady player, but he’s been stuck on the same team with Stephon Marbury for the last five years, and it’s hard to keep your production up when you don’t see the ball.
What if he could have avoided injuries? He was on his way to revolutionizing the point guard position. It’s been 10 years since he entered the league, and I can count on one hand the number of 6’7” point guards. He was one of a kind, and it hurts to watch him play at just a quarter of his once jaw-dropping abilities.
Although I have no personal rooting interest involved with Michael Vick, I hope it never reaches that point with him. I would like to keep watching him make defenders look dizzy and fans spit beer on themselves. Unless of course it’s against the Raiders, when there’s nothing wrong with him sitting out a few plays.