ATLANTA (AP) – There’s more than one side to Michael Vick, the star quarterback.
This is a guy who can throw a football harder and farther than just about anyone on the planet, but that’s only half the profile.
He’s one of the most thrilling runners the NFL has ever seen, slicing this way and cutting that way a la Barry Sanders, becoming the first at his position ever to gain 1,000 yards in a season with his legs.
Maybe there’s more than one side to Michael Vick, the person.
Everyone from family and friends to coaches and teammates describe him as a hard worker who cares for those around him, who never shows the sort of ego one would expect from someone of his staggering skills, who would rather hang out at home playing video games than go out on the town.
But a stomach-turning federal indictment portrays him as a sinister thug who used his big payday to satisfy a lust for blood, who turned dogs into killers and signed off on gruesome executions when they wouldn’t fight, who never scrambled away from the shady friends or rites of manhood picked up on the hard-scrabble streets of Newport News, Va.
Who’s the real Michael Vick?
“There was no indication, no signs, no whispers that he could be involved in any of this kind of behavior,” said Atlanta Falcons general Rich McKay, sounding as baffled as everyone else that Vick might have thrown it all away in the seedy underworld of dogfighting.
The charges still must be determined in court. If nothing else, though, it seems clear that Vick – born 27 years ago to teenage parents and raised largely by his mother in a neighborhood where gangs and drugs and poverty were a constant reminder of one’s standing in life – never quite shook off the code of the ‘hood.
Machismo and loyalty helped keep you alive from one day to the next. Not even a $130 million contract, luxurious cars and a mansion in the suburbs can necessarily change that.
“It’s difficult for people to understand, particularly the middle class and upper middle class,” said Brian Colwell, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri. “They just see it as a bad behavior, rather than a learned sense of how to survive.”
Although the Falcons insist they had no indication Vick could be involved in dogfighting, there were warning signs from the beginning.
The first seeds of trouble were planted in an interview that Vick did shortly before he was drafted. He talked proudly of his interest in dogs and said he wanted to open his own kennel.
According to the feds, Vick did just that after signing with the Falcons, purchasing a house in rural Virginia and starting up “Bad Newz Kennels.”
In 2005, he was sued by a woman who claimed Vick knowingly gave her a venereal disease and sought treatment under the alias of “Ron Mexico.” In January, he was stopped at the Miami airport carrying a water bottle with a secret compartment that purportedly smelled of marijuana.
The lawsuit was settled out of court, and no charges were filed over the water bottle.
Of course, those incidents pale next to Vick’s current troubles. If convicted, he could go to prison for five years, and his career likely would be over before he even reached his prime.
“He’s like a brother,” Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said. “It was definitely a surprise to me.”
Coming out of high school, Vick wasn’t even the most touted prospect in his own area, a coastal region known as the Tidewater. He was overshadowed by two-sport star Ronald Curry, who led his team to three straight states titles in football and one in basketball.
Vick was content to fly under the radar. He considered Syracuse but didn’t want the pressure of trying to follow Donovan McNabb. He wound up staying closer to home at Virginia Tech after coach Frank Beamer assured Vick’s handlers of a redshirt year to ease the transition to college.
“Mike became Mike at Virginia Tech,” said Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, another native of the Virginia coast who followed Vick to the Hokies. “He didn’t become Mike playing in Tidewater. Where we came up, it was all Ronald Curry. I think Mike would tell you the same thing. Ronald Curry was the guy everybody was going ‘Wow’ over.”
That all changed in college.
Curry had a solid career at North Carolina but nothing special. Vick, on the other hand, led Virginia Tech to the national championship game as a redshirt freshman, doing his best to single-handedly beat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. He was favored to win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, but an ankle injury scuttled his chances.
“Just seeing him in college, seeing him grow and mature as a player, it was a beautiful thing,” Hall said. “It’s one of the reasons I decided to go to Tech.”
By all accounts, Vick was humble and polite during his three years with the Hokies. He actually seemed a bit shy and spoke so softly reporters sometimes didn’t know what was said until they listened to their recorders.
“I don’t have any idea about what’s going on” with the dogfighting case, Beamer said. “I do know this: Michael Vick, he’s a very caring guy, he’s a very giving guy.”
Back in Vick’s old neighborhood, they paint a similar portrait of someone who never forgot his roots.
After deciding to enter the NFL draft, he picked the Boys & Girls Club in Newport News to make the announcement, remembering how it shaped his life.
Just a couple of months ago, old mentor James “Poo” Johnson called Vick to ask if he could get some equipment for a Boys & Girls Club tournament. No. 7 sent the stuff right along and said he would try to attend the event.
“He’s being portrayed now sort of like a monster, but that’s not him,” said Johnson, who first met Vick two decades ago. “I know his heart.”
After being drafted by the Falcons, Vick spent one season as a backup and took over as the starter in 2002, leading Atlanta to the playoffs for the first time in four years. They made it all the way to the NFC championship game two seasons later.
“Mike did everything we asked him to do,” said Dan Reeves, Vick’s first pro coach. “He was never any trouble, and he had a great attitude, particularly for a young player drafted as high as he was.”
Vick was hardly a dominating presence in the locker room, largely keeping to himself and a close circle of friends.
“It seems like he’s had the same circle of friends he had as a kid,” said Reeves, who was fired during a dismal ’03 season that fell apart when Vick broke his leg in the preseason. “Maybe that’s because he kept hanging out with a few guys he grew up with instead of making more friends on the team.”
Colwell, the sociology professor, said it’s not unusual for someone coming from a poor neighborhood to stick with those he grew up with, even after going on to fame and fortune. If anything, the bonds to the past are especially comforting when one is suddenly faced with a drastic change in lifestyle.
“You’re asking a lot out of a person to divorce themselves from their background,” Colwell said. “Your identity is rooted in actual people. You’re asking someone to be someone else, to essentially say, ‘Ignore everyone that cares for you and you’ve come to know.’ It can feel a little like jumping off into an abyss.”
Last year, as Marcus Vick prepared for the NFL draft after getting kicked out of Virginia Tech for repeated misbehavior, his big brother seemed to be stable influence. Michael admonished his little brother, telling him to clean up his act and start taking responsibility for his actions.
“He needs to realize that he’s a grown man now,” Vick said at the time. “This is his livelihood.”
Maybe Vick should have heeded his own advice.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond, Va., and Associated Press writers Sonja Barisic in Norfolk, Va., and George Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.