The redemption of Michael Vick has lifted spirits in the cold corners of Philadelphia, in the hot nightclubs of Atlanta, and in the warm homes of his native Virginia. But perhaps nowhere has the icon of the 2010 NFL season been more deeply appreciated than on one of the most forbidding streets of Cincinnati.
Welcome to the neighborhood known as Over-The-Rhine, which one website recently named the most dangerous in America. NeighborhoodScout.com pulled data from all over the nation and decreed in 2009 that living in “OTR,” as it’s called, gives a resident a 1-in-4 chance of being the victim of a violent crime. It’s been 10 years since the Cincinnati riots set this area ablaze; that was the worst urban disturbance in America since the L.A. riots in 1992.
But these days there is redemption here too, and that’s where Michael Vick comes in.
In a bland office on Vine Street, a former executive from a valve manufacturing company has dedicated his life to helping troubled adults start over. His name is Brad Mueller, and he is the director of Jobs Plus Employment Network. Every year, hundreds of Cincinnati residents -- many with histories of criminal behavior -- walk into his office looking for help.
But there’s not a lot of common ground between a middle-aged businessman and a clientele with a long rap sheet and a lot of bitterness. Mueller can’t quite convince people to go through a 10-week training program by saying, “Trust me.” In 2009, a brutal year for hiring, Mueller got 674 referrals but only 100 got jobs. Former prisoners in the program need inspiration and motivation –- not a lecture.
“People come here defeated,” Mueller says. “They think they’ll never be able to do anything again. They’ve been rejected 53 times from 53 employers because they have something on their record. They need an example. Well, here’s an example: Michael Vick.”
Sports offer a bond for Jobs Plus applicants, who are 80 percent male and 80 percent African-American, according to Mueller. They want to relate to others, but it’s hard to create small talk when their last few months or years have been behind bars, and it’s hard to open up when so many come from pain and loss.
“Being in the program, during downtime, we’re going to talk about sports,” says Chris Washington, 28, who spent three months in jail on a gun possession charge in 2009. “And we’ll speak about Vick. It’s always a good thing to see someone succeed who made a mistake. It gives you the extra push to believe you can do the same.”
Of course nobody entering Jobs Plus can run a 4.4 40 or throw a football 60 yards in the air. Finding a job wouldn’t be so tough if everyone could do that. But exploiting natural talent is not the moral of Vick’s comeback.
“People don’t have his physical attributes, but look at what he was doing while he was in prison,” says Abe Woolfolk, the senior career counselor at Jobs Plus (on the right on the photo above with Mueller). “Vick worked out in the penitentiary. He could have gained 45 pounds and came out flabby and out of shape. He could have been not remorseful at all. He could have listened to his homeboys who let him down to begin with. While you’re in prison, you have to hone your skills –- inside and out. A person still has to be ready. It’s work – just like it was for Vick.”
That’s the strongest message Jobs Plus wants to send. On a wooden door in the heart of the office, Woolfolk has posted a sign, “If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to be what you’ve always been.” Vick’s story is not just a football tale in OTR, but a parable about motivation and patience. “I know he must have been frustrated,” says Eddie Newman, 25, who finished a three-and-a-half year prison term in
December. “I know frustration is gonna happen. I expect it to happen. I know what I have to do to not end up where I was at.”
Discussion of Vick is so prevalent here -- there’s even a magazine with Vick on the cover in the front foyer --that a new phrase has been coined to describe applicants who get a foothold at a job and make it stick: “A Michael Vick story.”
The Jobs Plus annual fundraiser is in early February, and usually Mueller invites someone from the business community to speak. This year he’s thinking about reaching out to Vick.
In the meantime, Woolfolk likes to walk around in the sweatshirt he won in his Yahoo! fantasy football league. He took a chance on Vick when no one else would. “He was great for me, too,” he says. “He was on the waiver wire, just like a lot of guys are out on the street with a lot of potential. They’re looking for hope, grasping for hope. They are looking to be a Michael Vick.”