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Michael Vick’s Long, Strange Detour
Posted on Sep 27, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
Early last month I experienced what I’ve been calling a mini-crisis of conscience. In most ways, it was a garden-variety upset, but in one way it was odd: The cause was a man I’d never met, someone I’d seen only in a few photographs and TV broadcasts. Until I started to research this article, my knowledge of him was confined to his activities in the two particular spheres that had thrust him into the national spotlight, and I didn’t know much about those either.
The person in question gained fame as a running quarterback who excited legions of National Football League followers. He was the league’s No. 1 draft pick in 2001 and over a handful of seasons with the Atlanta Falcons became a three-time choice for the Pro Bowl and the third-best quarterback in league history in career rushing yards.
In addition to being admired by perhaps millions, he earned millions: In 2004 he signed a 10-year contract for $130 million, and money from his endorsement deals was flowing in torrents.
Later, his fame was eclipsed by a dark notoriety. This once-celebrated athlete came to be widely scorned as “The Dog Killer” and, according to a poll published in July, he was the most disliked person in American sports.
Michael Dwayne Vick is the fellow who scrambled a cubic centimeter of gray matter somewhere deep within my brain. But I won’t get into my delicate little condition just yet. Hang in for a while and I’ll open that can of spaghetti. First, let’s look at Vick and how he got to be what he is today—a 29-year-old who in late August returned to the NFL preseason field after suffering one of the most dramatic downfalls in the history of U.S. sports, and who on Sunday played in his first regular-season game in almost three years.
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“As a grade schooler, Michael … showed tremendous promise in baseball and basketball,” one biography says. “By junior high, however, his adolescent angst got the best of him, and he became a disciplinary problem for his teachers. His mother pushed him to get involved with an after-school activity. Michael chose football. … ”
In high school Vick was a quarterback sensation, eventually winning a scholarship to Virginia Tech, where his star continued to shine. After his sophomore season at the university, the door of the Holy of Holies of American pop culture opened to him: He entered the NFL, where heroes are born and die, where legends shoot from raucous stadiums into the fantasies of boys staring into TV sets across the land.
Like most other football players, he had injuries (once he suffered a leg fracture) and periods of poor performance, and an Internet writer went so far as to contend at the end of the 2003 season that he “has done little or nothing to provide supporters with any evidence that he can, indeed, be the leader of an NFL football team.” However, one NFL Web analysis noted recently that his fans had been “intoxicated by his electrifying running skills and playmaking ability.”
For every one person who badmouthed him, there seemed to be many others who loved the man. That was before he got extremely bad press. And before he got extremely bad press he got some ordinary bad press, by flipping a double bird to fans in the Georgia Dome and being a difficult person in general. Also, his public image wasn’t helped any when he was hit with a lawsuit in 2005 by a woman who alleged she had contracted genital herpes from him. Eventually, the case was settled out of court under undisclosed terms.
In the happy days of big paychecks and cheering fans, Vick’s life appeared golden. But beneath the gleam lay a dirty secret that would throw out tentacles to yank this hero from his pedestal. In April of 2007 authorities raided a Virginia property owned by the quarterback and discovered 66 dogs and a dog-fighting pit. For Vick, the first domino had fallen.
In June of that year canine remains were found at the property, and in July, Michael Vick, presumably a role model to America’s youth, was indicted on federal charges. The name of his Virginia operation became known throughout the country: Bad Newz Kennels. Bad newz indeed.
Federal authorities alleged that he had been part of a dog-fighting ring that offered purses as high as $26,000. They also charged that Vick and other indicted men had “executed approximately 8 dogs that did not perform well in testing’ sessions” or fights. Some of these animals were hanged or drowned, the feds said, and at least one was killed by being slammed to the ground. It appeared that quite a bit of invention had been employed in finding ways to dispatch animals that did not measure up. One luckless canine competitor was electrocuted, prosecutors said. (Click here to see a copy of the indictment, which begins under a short news report.)
The allegations in the indictment—almost unimaginable to many who had followed Vick’s career—reverberated throughout the media. Rage echoed in the sports world and elsewhere, especially among pet lovers. Petitions demanding that Vick be barred from football sprang up. (In fairness it must be noted that there have been petitions in his favor, too.)
In July 2007, Vick pleaded not guilty and issued a statement that read, in part: “Today in court I pleaded innocent to the allegations made against me. I take these charges very seriously and I look forward to clearing my good name. I respectfully ask all of you to hold your judgment until all of the facts are shown.”
At one point in 2007 he told the NFL’s commissioner and the owner of the Atlanta Falcons that he was not personally involved in dog fighting, but later owner Arthur Blank would say that his quarterback had lied to him: “You think you know somebody for six years and you find out another side of their personality that you didn’t know. … It’s very sad.”
Vick’s own father indicated that his son had not been truthful in denying involvement in dog fighting. Michael Boddie (Vick uses his mother’s original surname) claimed that sometime around 2001 Vick kept dogs in the backyard and staged fights in the garage of the family’s Newport News home. Boddie went on to dismiss the suggestion that Vick’s friends were to blame for the Bad Newz Kennels’ dog-fighting operation. “I wish people would stop sugarcoating it,” Boddie said. “This is Mike’s thing. And he knows it.” (Brenda Vick Boddie, the quarterback’s mother, denied her estranged husband’s account.)
A key issue in the Vick scandal is gambling. Although he admitted he had bankrolled betting operations, Vick maintained in 2007 that he personally had never placed bets on dog fights, and ever since then he has held to that statement. Gambling. The word itself is enough to send shivers through most college and professional athletes. A disclosed tie to gambling has the power to end a sports career. It has the power to forever tarnish a reputation; just ask Pete Rose.
In late August 2007, Vick pleaded guilty to having participated in illegal dog fighting and was suspended indefinitely from professional football. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a letter to the disgraced player: “Your admitted conduct was not only illegal, but also cruel and reprehensible” [and regardless of whether you personally placed bets] “your actions in funding the betting and your association with illegal gambling both violate the terms of your NFL player contract and expose you to corrupting influences in derogation of one of the most fundamental responsibilities of an NFL player.”
The letter continued: “You have engaged in conduct detrimental to the welfare of the NFL and have violated the league’s personal conduct policy.”
That December, Vick was sentenced to up to 23 months in prison. The judge made his term longer than those of two co-defendants because the former Pro Bowl player had been “less than truthful” about his involvement in killing pit bulls. Although Vick declared that he had owned up to his felonies, the judge wasn’t buying it: “I’m not convinced you’ve fully accepted responsibility.”
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