By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
BROOKLYN, Md. -- James Boddie rose from a leather chair in the living room of his townhouse, minutes from downtown Baltimore, and walked upstairs to retrieve something. "I want to show you this," he said.
He'd been telling stories about his grandson, Michael Vick, stories about how a poor kid from a rough neighborhood in Newport News, Va., could use football to build a fancy house for his mother and a life of fame and riches for himself. He had been telling of taking a train to New York to be with his grandson and other family members when the Atlanta Falcons made Vick, a quarterback from Virginia Tech with a powerful left arm and magical legs, the top pick in the NFL draft in April 2001.
Boddie returned with a frame containing a draft-day picture of Vick and a signed commemorative draft T-shirt. That was a fond memory indeed. "Got a chance to meet Joe Theismann and all those guys," Boddie said.
For those who care about Vick, it has become a struggle to keep the good times from becoming fading memories. Yesterday, Vick, 27, agreed to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges and likely will be sentenced to 12 to 18 months in prison. He also faces further possible Virginia state charges and an NFL suspension.
An athletic career, once so promising that it earned him a $130 million contract, is in ruins.
"It's just sad when someone has that much God-given talent for something," former Falcons coach Dan Reeves said, "and it's potentially going to be wasted."
There are multiple explanations for Vick's downfall, according to interviews conducted the past few weeks with family members and Vick's former teammates, and a review of court documents related to the case. Vick could not be reached to comment and some of the key figures in his life refused to be interviewed.
The most prominent theory, espoused by Boddie and Reeves, blames much of Vick's troubles on his continued association with childhood friends who have questionable pasts. Those same friends were the ones who agreed to testify against Vick in exchange for more lenient sentences for their roles in the crimes.
Court papers, however, portray Vick as someone whose legal troubles are his own doing. They show Vick as the unquestioned leader of a vicious dogfighting operation. Not only did he finance it, but he also carried out some of its most heinous crimes, including the killings of dogs.
For some, the truth lies somewhere in between. As one person familiar with the case said: "Clearly, he's the leader but he couldn't say no to them and he couldn't cut them loose."
Regardless of the causes, it is difficult to find a greater non-injury-related demise of a top American professional athlete in the prime of his career.
"He could have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache, like his mother for one, if he'd done what was right from the beginning," Michael Boddie, Vick's father, said yesterday.The Rise
Michael Boddie met his future wife, Brenda Vick, when they lived across a courtyard from one another in Newport News. The young couple had four children, two daughters and two sons, but didn't get married until just before the birth of the youngest child, Courtney. Brenda took the last name Boddie but the older children, including Michael, chose to keep calling themselves Vick.
Michael Boddie spent time in the Army. James Boddie has a picture on his living room wall of his son in uniform, alongside a larger frame with a collection of photos that includes shots of an approximately 10-year-old Michael Vick with his three siblings and a high school-age Vick with his mother. Michael Boddie eventually followed in his father's footsteps and became a welder; he also was a carpenter. Periodic layoffs made money tight and Brenda, according to James Boddie, worked at Kmart and as a bus driver during the lulls when Michael Boddie wasn't working.
One person who knew Michael Vick as a young boy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the controversy in which Vick now is engulfed, said Michael Boddie was in and out of the young Michael Vick's life and Vick's "stabilizers" were his mother and grandmother. James and Michael Boddie dispute the notion. James said the characterization sprang from the fact that Brenda attended Michael Vick's games at Virginia Tech while Michael Boddie usually stayed at home with the other children.
"You've never seen me, have you?" Michael Boddie said in a telephone interview last week. "You never see me in interviews or anything. But I've been in his life. There was the two and a half years I was in the Army that I wasn't, but I came back three months before he turned 3. Me and Brenda got our first apartment together in '83. We lived in the same house, under the same roof, and raised our children. All those stories you've heard about me leaving my children? It's not true. Someone persuaded my wife and child to make it seem like he came from a broken home to help his chances in the NFL. This is what was told to my family and they bought into. I didn't say anything about it because I didn't want to put my wife in no bad light and hurt my son."
Michael Vick grew up near Ridley Circle and 12th Street in the rugged East End section of Newport News; the crime- and drug-ridden southeast part of town was nicknamed "Bad Newz" (Vick and his co-defendants allegedly called their dogfighting venture the "Bad Newz Kennels"). Family members called Michael Vick "Ookie," a nickname that turned up as an alias in his dogfighting indictment. James Boddie said he didn't know the meaning of the nickname. "Who knows?" he said. "But they've been calling him that ever since he was knee-high."
Some accounts of Vick's life have maintained that he might have been headed toward trouble as a kid but chose football over the streets. James Boddie, however, said the Vick children were never in trouble more serious than breaking a window playing ball. Michael Vick found his way to the local boys' club, where his competitiveness was evident, whether he was playing basketball or table tennis. His best sport at first was baseball, said someone who knew the young Vick, but a boys' club coach steered him toward football when he was 9 or 10.
Vick's younger brother, Marcus, would follow him to Virginia Tech as a quarterback; his second cousin, Aaron Brooks, would become an NFL quarterback. But Michael Vick's ability transcended theirs and was apparent from the moment he first picked up a football with his left hand -- which was odd, since he did most other things right-handed. James Boddie's wife, Evelyn, said as she sat near her husband in their living room last week that family members always told stories of the neighborhood kids running out to catch passes from the young Michael Vick, just to see how far he could throw the ball. James Boddie said: "It was just a gift, and it was a way out. It was a way out from 12th Street."
Michael Vick became a standout at Warwick High but still was playing in the shadow of nearby quarterbacking prodigy Ronald Curry, who would go on to play both football and basketball at the University of North Carolina and now is a wide receiver with the Oakland Raiders.
Vick took a recruiting visit to Syracuse during which he befriended the school's quarterback, current Philadelphia Eagles standout Donovan McNabb, but chose Virginia Tech.
Pierson Prioleau, a backup safety for the Washington Redskins who once was a teammate at Virginia Tech, recalled a practice early in Vick's collegiate career in which Vick was assigned to emulate McNabb on the scout team, getting the Hokies' defensive players ready to face the Syracuse star that week.
"And oh, did he play it well," Prioleau said. "The guys on our defense were saying, 'There's no way Donovan McNabb is that fast.' From that day on, I knew he'd be something special."
The next season, Vick led the Hokies to the national title game in his first season as a starter. He played two seasons at Virginia Tech after being redshirted for a season, and Prioleau said Vick was well-liked. "I never heard a bad word about him," Prioleau said. "He was just a regular guy."
Perhaps too regular. James Boddie said his grandson got homesick at times during college and would go back to Newport News to hang out with old associates from his neighborhood. Reeves, who was Vick's first NFL head coach, said: "That's really what got him into trouble. He was indicted with three people that he should have been as far away from as east from west."
Former Virginia Tech linebacker Brenden Hill, a lifelong friend of Marcus Vick who knows both brothers, said the Vicks remained highly loyal to their home town and the people they knew there. Marcus tattooed "757," the area code for Newport News, on his arm. Michael also embraced his roots.
"It's kind of what is involved in this situation right now," said Hill, who was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 2004 for an incident in which he, Marcus Vick and another Virginia Tech football player served alcohol to teenage girls. "I want to make it clear that's who's gotten him even involved in this situation. What brought him to the hot water, I would say, is because of the fact that he's loyal."
NFL teams spend countless hours and dollars looking into the backgrounds of the players that they're going to draft and invest millions in, but Reeves said the Falcons found no red flags with Vick before drafting him. "None whatsoever," Reeves said. "I talked to his high school coach, to [Virginia Tech Coach Frank] Beamer. The league checked him out, and nothing showed up."
The Falcons ended up with Vick after trading up to get the first pick from the Chargers in a deal that resulted in tailback LaDainian Tomlinson going to San Diego. James Boddie said the Vick and Tomlinson entourages ended up at a post-draft celebration at a New York hotel.
"It was a party like you've never seen," Boddie said. "Me, his daddy, his uncle, his mom, my youngest daughter, LaDainian Tomlinson's people, we were all drinking Johnnie Walker Red and Chivas Regal. And Ookie was just sitting down with Pepsi, watching some Western. And everybody was in a festive mood. But since then, I have never seen him get the big head like, 'Ooh, I'm it.' Every time I've been in his presence, it's the same old Ookie."
Vick developed into one of the NFL's most exciting and marketable players even though his quarterbacking lacked polish. He remained a relatively inaccurate passer. But his athleticism was breathtaking, and he helped the Falcons to some success. They reached the NFC championship game in the 2004 season before losing at Philadelphia. In December 2004, Vick signed a 10-year, $130 million contract extension that included $37 million in bonuses.
Reeves, the Falcons' head coach for Vick's first three NFL seasons, said he "had no complaints" about working with Vick but did speak to the quarterback as a rookie about his off-field associations after police reportedly stopped two men in Newport News traveling in a truck owned by Vick and found them to have marijuana.
"I brought Mike in and I told him, 'Mike, you just can't afford to do that. You have to sever those ties. You have to be careful. When something like this happens, the headlines won't be about that guy. They'll be about the car being in your name,' " Reeves said. "In three years, that was the only time I had to talk to him about that. And things like that are not just something that are unique to Mike Vick. You talk to a lot of your players about issues like that."
The problem didn't end with Reeves's talk.
"Brenda used to tell me every time she would go to Atlanta -- he's got this big mansion down there in Atlanta, and Ookie ain't no cook or housekeeper," James Boddie said. "So he's got a bunch of guys hanging around all the time, the girls running in and out. So she went down there and cleaned house: 'Everybody just get out! Get out! Get out! You guys are just sucking up my son's money. You're really not doing nothing for him.' I think that's when he met these guys."
Evelyn Boddie said, "We're just sorry he did meet them."
In October 2004, Vick and two men -- one of whom later was identified to police as Quanis Phillips, a co-defendant in the dogfighting case and a longtime friend whose criminal record at the time included a 1997 arrest for possession of stolen property and a guilty plea in 1999 to misdemeanor possession with intent to distribute marijuana -- were passing through a security checkpoint at the Atlanta airport. One of the two men traveling with Vick took a watch that belonged to a Transportation Security Administration screener named Alvin Spencer, who'd placed the fake Rolex on the X-ray belt to pass the time during a slow period. Spencer eventually got his watch back, but only after being pressured by police, he said, not to press charges in the case to preserve Vick's reputation. An internal affairs review by the Atlanta police concluded that the investigation had been handled properly, but some TSA officials believed otherwise. Falcons executive and former player Billy "White Shoes" Johnson intervened on Vick's behalf during the episode and acknowledged in the internal affairs investigation that he offered Spencer money, although no payment ultimately was made.
Last year, Vick reached a settlement with a woman who had sued him and claimed that he knowingly gave her herpes; the lawsuit said Vick used the alias "Ron Mexico" when being treated. Last season, Vick was fined $10,000 by the NFL and agreed to donate an additional $10,000 to charity after making an obscene gesture toward fans at the Georgia Dome as he left the field following a Falcons loss. In January, a water bottle surrendered by Vick at a security checkpoint at the Miami airport was found to have a secret compartment and what a police report called a marijuana-like substance; authorities later said that no evidence of drugs was found and no charges were filed.
Several people within the NFL said they think Vick was surrounded by enablers, from his friends to his business advisers, and probably developed a sense that any transgression would be overlooked and any problem fixed for him. "It was this world of 'yes' men around him and he thought his status put him above it all, including the law," said one top executive within the league.The Fall
James Boddie said Michael Vick "formed a bond" with cousin Davon Boddie, and Davon Boddie "would go down to Atlanta and drive him around." Authorities were conducting a drug raid focused on Davon Boddie in April when they reportedly found dogfighting equipment at Vick's property in Virginia. Officials at the Humane Society have said they had heard rumors beginning in 2004 of Vick being involved in dogfighting, but had been unable to substantiate them.
The federal indictment of Vick, Phillips and co-defendants Purnell Peace and Tony Taylor said that Vick, along with Phillips and Taylor, decided in early 2001 to start a dogfighting venture. They identified a property in Smithfield, Va., in May 2001 "as being a suitable location for housing and training pit bulls for fighting," the indictment said, and Vick purchased it that June.
The indictment portrays Vick as being an active member of the dogfighting ring, attending and even traveling to dogfights, paying off bets lost on fights and participating in the killings of dogs that didn't perform well. Taylor pleaded guilty last month and signed a statement saying that Vick funded the dogfighting operation and its gambling efforts almost exclusively. Peace and Phillips pleaded guilty Friday and Phillips signed a statement saying that Vick participated in the killing of eight dogs, some by hanging and drowning.
Furthermore, Vick apparently lied to NFL officials when he met with them to discuss the allegations.
"We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons," the NFL said yesterday.
The NFL's personal conduct policy for players empowers NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to fine, suspend or impose a lifetime ban on an offending player. Vick also may have violated the league's gambling policy. The Falcons haven't ruled out releasing Vick, and they could try to force him to refund some of the bonus money in his mammoth contract. Already, analysts say he has lost tens of millions of dollars in potential endorsement income. The owner of one NFL team said he doubts that Vick will play another game in the league.
As he sat in his living room last week, James Boddie was asked how great a toll this was taking on the Vick and Boddie families. He paused, closed his eyes and said: "Unbelievable."
He opened his eyes, and they looked a bit teary. He told of his grandson leaving him tickets when the Falcons played in Baltimore last season, and using them to take some neighborhood kids to the game.
"Every time I'd see him on TV, people would roar when he came out on the field," Boddie said. "I'd say, 'This is not somebody else's grandson. This is my grandson, and people love him. He's taking care of his family and he's doing great things, you know, he's visiting the boys' clubs and hospitals and holding babies and stuff, always doing positive stuff.' . . . And then this."
Staff writer Adam Kilgore and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.