Timothy Gallagher can’t quite wrap his mind around the horrible things that Michael Vick did to dogs that led to his 21-month federal prison sentence and nearly upended his career.
But as a man who found his own resurrection after a 1982 drug conviction that culminated with a White House pardon earlier this month, he can understand what President Obama sees in the Philadelphia Eagle quarterback’s story and why second chances can work.
In fact, in Vick’s narrative, Gallagher also sees a bit of himself. At his home in Navasota, Texas, the grizzled firefighter said he has hung up two photos that offer testimony of his own personal turnaround.
One photo is of his old boss at the Phoenix Fire Department who decided to give him a second chance two years after he was forced out of his job following a firehouse drug scandal. The second is a snapshot of him at work during a memorable blaze in his post-conviction tour of duty in which he rescued two people.
“All of this wouldn’t have been possible without a second chance,” said Gallagher, who was one of nine ex-offenders granted a pardon by President Obama for exemplary work in their post-conviction lives. “Michael Vick did his time in the joint like a man. He’s spoken out against what he did as wrong. He did his time riding the bench, and now he’s having a great season. He’s finding redemption.”
Whether he intended it or not, Obama has ignited a conversation about the reintegration of ex-offenders into society with his comments, reported this week, lauding the Eagles for giving Vick the opportunity to restart his career.
Since Obama’s private phone call with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie became public, the White House downplayed the comments on Vick as a sidebar in a call that centered around the Eagles' plans for green energy alternatives at their stadium.
But as the First Fan, Obama's attraction to the Vick narrative is easy to understand.
Vick, an electrifying NFL star at the top of his game, was jailed for unthinkable cruelty to animals. He lost a fortune and at times appeared arrogant as the NFL and a judge throw the book at him. But after spending nearly two years in prison, he returned to society contrite and even became a public spokesman on the savagery of dogfighting. The icing on the cake: Vick has returned to his pre-prison level of play to take the Eagles to the playoffs. With a little luck, the storybook ending could be a Super Bowl.
But judging by the mixed response, it’s unclear if Americans are as willing as Obama to forgive and forget.
In this slow post-Christmas news cycle, the cable networks and talk radio have filled long hours of programming with overheated invective about Obama’s call to Lurie. How could the president speak positively of a millionaire football player who ran a dogfighting ring where poor performers were executed and friends used something called a “rape stand” to assist breeding? The pundit Tucker Carlson, sitting in for Sean Hannity at Fox News Channel, even said this week that Vick should have been executed.
But at the edges of the debate on whether Vick was worthy of presidential praise is a more important question: Are we doing enough to reintegrate ex-convicts into society?
Statistics show that a felony conviction often comes with a lifetime economic sanction. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that serving time reduces an individual's annual earnings by 40 percent. The post-incarceration wages of African-American and Hispanic males are also hit disproportionately hard, according to the Pew study.
Vick, of course, won’t go hungry. He’s unlikely to earn another $130 million contract as he did with the Atlanta Falcons before his conviction, but he’ll do fine on the free agent market next year assuming there is no NFL lockout.
But as the statistics show, the road back for most convicts is far more treacherous.
Gallagher recalled spending much of the two years following his drug conviction with no fixed abode, couch-surfing and living out of his car. He cobbled out a living as an electrician when he could find work on construction sites, before the Phoenix Fire Department took him back. With the conviction on his record, getting work was difficult.
“The interviews would be going great, and they would turn the page and see [that I was a convict],” he recalled. “The interview, more often than not, would end right there.”
But Gallagher said there’s hope if employers have an open mind about the potential of second chances. He points to his own comeback as proof that there can be a meaningful second act for the ex-con.
“It’s a bigger conversation that as a country we need to start having,” Gallagher said.