Eighteen months ago, Michael Vick was a resident of federal prison, hoping to one day get a chance to rejoin an NFL team and resume his career as a professional football player. Last season, he got his shot as the backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, playing only a handful of snaps as a run-first option. But today, he's a bona fide MVP candidate playing some of the best football in the league.
On Nov. 15, Vick led the Eagles to a record-breaking 59-28 win over the Washington Redskins, going 20-28 for 333 yards passing, including four passing TDs and two more rushing. He threw an 88-yard TD on the first play of the game. The Eagles led the Skins 35-0 in the 2nd quarter. More than halfway through the season, Vick has still has not thrown an interception.
So how is this possible? How do you go from inmate, to part-time wildcat QB, to legitimately being compared with Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, in just 18 months?
It started with a high school track coach named Tom Anderson, from Landstown High School in Virginia Beach, VA.
This season, Vick is playing like many hoped he would one day play for the Atlanta Falcons, the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001. As a quarterback with running-back speed, something no one had seen before, his potential seemed limitless. But he relied on his natural ability too much, struggling with accuracy and consistency throwing the ball. That reputation, when combined with his time away from the game and the public scrutiny over his role in a dog-fighting ring, left plenty in doubt about his comeback. How could he ever become the player he used to be in Atlanta, much less finally achieve his full potential as an athlete?
Those questions fueled Vick, who knew he had to find a way to recapture his athleticism. In spot duty last year, he was no longer the game breaker that fans remembered. Vick's high school coach, Tommy Reamon, is now the head football coach at Landstown high school in Virginia Beach. Anderson is the head track coach and an assistant coach on the football staff at Landstown. Reamon and Vick's agent contacted Anderson in January of 2009, asking if he would be able to help Vick get some speed and agility work in during the off-season. Anderson was thrilled to help, and knew what the stakes would be.
"I told him 'you don't need me to be a great football player,' says Anderson. 'We're going to put together a program that I feel will make you the best football player on the planet.'" That was their goal from day one, printed on the top of every workout sheet that Anderson photocopied for Vick.
From January to June, for approximately 15-20 sessions (about once or twice a week), Anderson put Vick through a comprehensive workout program that combined track and football drills, designed specifically for a quarterback. Each session lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. The workouts had to be diverse and challenging, to train Vick's super human speed, but harness it to be best used on the field.
That footwork you saw during the Nov. 15 game against Washington, as he evaded rushers, reset, and fired a spiral down the field? That's built from three-, five- and seven-step resistance drop backs. The ankle-breaking, coverage-busting change of direction he showcased while easily racking up 80 yards rushing? That comes from evasive work in a sand pit, or around cones. And the bend in his knees, that textbook form he has on his passes? That comes from an awareness of his mechanics: Anderson videotaped Vick running, and then broke down the flaws in his natural movement.
Vick let Anderson build his body from the ground up. "He had been dormant 20 months," says Anderson. "For 20 months you can do push-ups, but it's not like training." His hip flexors and glutes had to be reprogrammed, as did his core. A long, dynamic warm-up started off each session. Then he'd stretch and do hurdle drills. After that, he'd train his abs, with a series of exercises like Russian twists and V-ups. Foot agility and speed ladder work came next, followed by speed drills, strength training, and plyometrics.
Eventually, Vick's work became more specialized, with exercises mimicking the pace of a football game. "We would work out for three to five seconds," says Anderson. "He would perform a task, then I would give him 25 to 30 seconds to recover. It would simulate him being hit and having to come right back."
One way that Anderson could tell that Vick was reclaiming, and exceeding, his old form was in the way he leaped over hurdles and changed direction. "We weren't surprised at all when he performed as well as he did the last couple weeks because we saw it coming. Even back in April he was right on target," says Anderson.
Anderson can remember the exact moment when he felt like Vick had returned to his old self. "He cut and I missed him, and I looked over at my wife, who's not a coach, but I saw her eyeballs bulging out," he says. "He immediately came back to us and said, 'Coach, I feel like myself again.' At that point I said, 'we have him back.'"
Anderson thinks that his time away from football may have actually benefited his body in the long run. "That's two seasons he didn't take the physical pounding," he says. "It allowed his body to heal and repair. Our job was just to activate things again." At first, Vick felt beat up by the long workouts.
"I'd call him up afterward and asked for a little feedback," says Anderson. "He was extremely receptive. Mike wasn't satisfied with his performance. So that hunger and desire to get back where he was a big motivator for him. It might have been for Mike to prove to the world, or it might have been for Mike to prove to himself that he was still capable of competing at a high level."
Now everyone knows what he's capable of. We'll see if he can keep it up and lead Philly to a Super Bowl.