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The “imperative of the job” takes over in the most difficult of assignments

Because Scott Price did Sports Illustrated's recent cover story on Michael Vick, anyone writing about that piece first should know Price's position on dogs. So we talked about Blitzen.

A big galoot of a German shepherd, Blitzen was the sweetheart king of Price's childhood neighborhood. "Kids would try to ride him, or take his food bowl away, and he'd barely blink."

Dogs were everywhere. "We lived in a suburban/sort-of rural area with lots of woods, and the kids all had dogs."

They had no need for leashes. No need, for sure, for those little plastic baggies people carry around. This was just boys and their dogs playing in the woods.

"Every once in a while, there'd be the usual escalation – butt-sniff/growling/fighting – between the dogs, but it'd end in 15 seconds with no blood and everybody chasing their own dogs away so we could go back to playing football or trying to set fires."

Price, now 48 years old, considers Blitzen "an influential figure in my life, a mythic figure in our house." In his family room today, there is a picture of the boy with his dog, the dog as big as the boy.

So how does Blitzen's buddy interview Michael Vick?

Then how does he write it without eviscerating Vick?

Time helped. It had been three years and seven months since Vick's arrest. If any part of the initial revulsion could be forgotten, enough time had passed for that to happen. More important, as Price put it, "There was the imperative of the job." The allusion was to a journalist's commitment to the craft – not to mention a crushing deadline imposed from on high, which, as Dr. Johnson said of a man who knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, "it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Price had asked for the assignment, at least telepathically. Who wouldn't want to write Michael Vick? Rarely do we experience the fascinating and disgusting confluence of America's major spectator sport, the darkness of a man's soul, and the wonder of that man's work. The Eagles had won four of six games since Vick became the starter. "He's playing out of his mind," coach Andy Reid said. While working another story, Price thought, "Michael Vick, that'd be kinda cool."

Then his editor called, asking if he'd like to do Vick.

"Absolutely," Price said.

Three hours later, the editor called again. He wanted Vick immediately, maybe for the cover. This is what happens when you've made yourself a star at S.I. In 16 years, you move from college football to the Olympics to features in the Deford/Smith genre. You write books about Castro's Cuba ("Pitching Around Fidel"), about your world travels ("Far Afield"), and about the death of a baseball lifer ("Heart of the Game"). Now and then, you take an editor's phone call asking for a miracle to be done, now.

"Absolutely," Price said.

I have interviewed rapists, thieves, and killers. Still, Michael Vick . . .

Yes, he did the time. He lost the money. He gave away whatever good name he had. The ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly believes that's enough. He wrote, "I'm just not sure what people want Michael Vick to do. Quit football? Return to prison? Drown himself in the same lake where he and his crew used to drown dogs?" And: "The man is contrite. He is humbled. He is chastened. He has already given 24 speeches for the Humane Society. He has dismissed his old friends, has even run from them when they show up. What else is he supposed to do? Move into a dog kennel himself?"

Price's piece was a 4,500-word feature done in four days rather than an 800-word column batted out in a couple hours. It offered no judgments – neither evisceration nor forgiveness – and was the better for it. It was a thoughtful, even-handed take that presented Vick's story as a Rorschach test. Price said, "The idea was, ‘What we're talking about when we're talking about Michael Vick.' When we're talking about Cal Ripken, we're not so much talking about the man as about what he represents: honor, values, principles. But if we're talking about Michael Vick, what are we really talking about?"

Price's second paragraph set the story's framework: "Now that his comeback has taken on a seemingly unstoppable momentum, the Michael Vick story has become the irresistible talking point, refreshed each Sunday, refusing easy answers, touching on nearly every theme under the American sun. Take your pick: His pivot from inmate 33765-1832 to Philadelphia Eagles superhero is about the public's ability to forgive or its jock-sniffing blindness or its short memory. It's about man's ability to change or to lie, paying one's debt to society or getting away with murder. It's the triumph of greed over principle, or mercy over horror. It's about loaded words like gullibility, redemption, fame and trust."

It's about one more thing for me, the strangest feeling of all. This takes some explaining.

For a hundred years or so, I have accepted all assignments. But could I be in the same room with Michael Vick and not think, "Dog killer"? I am lucky enough to have been cared for by dogs my whole life; the four who allow me in the house today are Lucky, Shadow, Kayo, and Jackson. If I got through the interview of Vick, could I be professional in the writing, neutral, clinical, fair? Could I write without the careful reader hearing my whisperings, "Remember, he's a dog killer"?

All that, Scott Price did in a brilliant piece of deadline reporting and writing. He could do it, at least in part, because the demands of the short-deadline assignment for a major piece precluded any personal sentiments. "There was the desperation of getting the thing done," he said. Also, he went in with a two-fold plan that had nothing to do with the old news of inmate 33675-1832.

"First, how have people reacted to him?" Price said. "The big question still is, ‘Has he changed? How is he progressing?' Second, I wanted to advance the story, if even by an inch. Find something new, different, something that Vick hasn't talked about. The Philadelphia papers, even gutted as all papers are, have done a fabulous job on Vick. I'm a parachute guy dropping in on their story. What can I get that's new? So I went to Philadelphia to sit down with him and see what he had to say."

Then Vick spoke, for the first time, about a June 25 incident in his hometown, Virginia Beach, Va. An acquaintance – a co-defendant in his dogfighting trial – wound up shot in the leg shortly after he and Vick exchanged "strong" words at a nightclub. Vick had left the club and had nothing to do with the shooting. Even being in the same building with the man was a violation of his probation terms; it was also a breach of Vick's I'll-stay-out-of-trouble agreement with the NFL and the Eagles. Price reported that Vick thought, "My God. This about to be a disaster." Vick also said, "I knew it. I was done."

If Vick is a changed man, he told Price, that's when the change happened. Ashamed that he'd let down his mother – again, after all the other stuff – he moved his life from Virginia Beach to Philadelphia, away from the trouble that had always found him and to a place where he could find himself. The way Vick put it, after all his years in the NFL, he became a professional football player for the first time. "I was able to get into the playbook and start studying," Vick said. "It was time I needed, time I wouldn't normally have spent doing that."

With that information, Scott Price advanced the story not an inch but a mile.

I rise in applause.

That said, I confess that Vick's words leave me cold. Like his lightning-bolt performances, they do nothing for me. There is no fun in watching him, no thrill, nothing. It's as if the laundry, an Eagles jersey, number 7, as empty as its owner's soul, moved by itself. Whatever the 7 did, I saw it and didn't care. That's the oddest feeling, to just not give a damn. Michael Vick is dead to me.

Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.
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