Monday, August 24, 2009

A Troy story

Troy Westwood's notoriety north of the line rivals Vick's prominence stateside.

Anybody even vaguely acquainted with me knows that I am no Sporty Spice. I was the kid hiding out in the bathroom stall at school during gym class. I’d lock the door and stand on the toilet seat to make my feet invisible to hall monitors searching for stragglers.

So when Michael Vick was given the go-ahead to play in the NFL, I was astonished that his reputation as a sadistic dog torturer hadn’t tanked his career. And when the Philadelphia Eagles signed the quarterback for a cool $7 million two-year contract, my amazement grew.

As an outsider looking in, I’ve noticed that sports stars are portrayed as being more than athletically gifted. Much emphasis is also placed on them being stellar community leaders involved in charities and other high-minded pursuits.

In my struggle to understand the Michael Vick issue from all angles, I called up an old friend—who’s also my high school sweetheart, by the way—because I knew he would throw fresh light on the controversy. He’s articulate and outspoken, and controversial at times in his own way.

Just like Vick, Troy Westwood is a #7, but he played in the CFL. The 17-year veteran kicker for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is the longest-serving player, and holds more than 30 team records. He’s the fourth-best scorer in CFL history. The 290 games he’s played ranks seventh in league history. His retirement last year has him most certainly bound for the Hall of Fame.

These days, he's a morning co-host on QX104 FM radio in Winnipeg, and a case manager for Family Connections, an inner-city organization that reunites children with their parents.

Troy had watched Vick’s interview on 60 Minutes last Sunday, and he didn’t take his comments at face value.

“Any time you have to read from a written statement, I’d question how from the heart it is,” Troy said, although he added that he’s reluctant to judge Vick’s sincerity from afar.

Troy said the 18 months Vick served of his 23-month sentence was too short, in his opinion. But he also believes in second chances.

“If someone comes out of incarceration, man or woman, they should be allowed to seek employment. That’s his profession. Someone’s got to be willing to offer you employment.”

Troy explained that Vick’s signing wasn’t surprising. And that—in the face of a sporting culture focused on winning—animal lovers might view it as a victory that so many teams refused to sign a player with such promise.

“All that matters is winning. That’s the culture of professional sport. Winning is it.”

Because managers’ heads land on the chopping block if a team doesn’t nab the wins, that means anything goes, Troy said. “There are rapists and murderers in the NFL. Any means justifies the end in professional sports.”

Troy wasn’t surprised to hear about Vick’s dog fighting involvement, because he’s heard locker room chatter about the blood sport before.

“For the past 15 years, I’ve heard guys from the southern states talking about it. It’s cultural,” Troy said.

I asked him: Is it even possible for a man who spent five years inflicting torture and suffering upon dozens of innocent animals to have the ability to change after a short stint in jail?

“The answer to that question only Michael Vick knows,” Troy said.

Whether Michael Vick plays or doesn’t play, repents or doesn’t repent, I know this much is true—his arrest has been a godsend for bringing dog fighting and its inherent cruelty into the public spotlight.

And while sports fans will be watching Vick's performance when he's on the field, animal rescuers around the nation will be watching him, too—for how he plays outside the stadium.

Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Troy and I were on our way to his uncle's wedding when this shot was snapped. I was 16. Yes, it's true it took some guts for me to post this. I'm cringing at my '80s big hair and the shoulder pads. There are some trends that should never make a comeback.

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