By Les Carpenter and Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 15, 2009
On May 5, Tony Dungy walked into the visitor's room at the 22-acre U.S. Federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., and met Michael Vick. It was not unusual for Dungy to be inside a prison. As part of his Christian outreach programs, the man who coached the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl title in 2007 has long worked with young men convicted of crimes.
This time he had come at the request of Vick's attorney, Billy Martin, who was from the same home town as Dungy's wife. He wanted a mentor for Vick. Would Dungy be one?
Dungy was interested. In Vick, who was nearing the end of a 23-month prison sentence for dogfighting, he saw a potential role model, someone who could speak of the mistakes that had destroyed Vick's reputation at the peak of his career. But first Dungy had to talk to Vick, to look at him, to gauge his remorse.
Many had been wondering the same thing.
As the end of Vick's sentence drew near and the potential loomed for a return by one of the National Football League's most dynamic players, the list of people Vick had to impress was lengthy. It included league commissioner Roger Goodell, the country's most prominent animal rights organization, and, not to be underestimated, one of the NFL's 32 team owners and his head coach.
Soon there would be more pilgrimages to Leavenworth from people wishing to speak to Vick, to measure his soul.
Dungy, as the first, wanted to know about Vick's faith. "Where was the Lord in all of this?" Dungy recalled Friday.
Vick told him he had been a religious person before he reached the NFL but as he became a bigger and bigger star he had abandoned his religion. Now, he told Dungy, who retired as the Indianapolis head coach after this past season, he wanted to bring it back.
"That's when I felt this is a young man who is on the right direction," Dungy said.
And largely because of the respect most in the NFL have for Dungy and his judgment of people, this is where the rehabilitation of Michael Vick began. If Dungy, who spent two hours that day talking about life and choices with the 29-year-old quarterback, was willing to take a chance on believing in Vick, perhaps others could too. Which is how Vick began his journey from being a social scourge, a man who admitted to wantonly torturing and killing dogs as part of an organized dogfighting operation, to a point where he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles this week that could pay him more than $7 million over two years.
On Friday, Vick sat at a news conference alongside Dungy and his new coach, Andy Reid, at the Eagles' headquarters in Philadelphia and declared: "I have done some terrible things. I made a horrible mistake. And now I want to be part of the solution and not the problem."
It is a conditional reclamation, one in which Goodell must still decide how soon Vick will be allowed back on the field for a regular season game. His contract with Philadelphia can be voided after a year. But given where he was, getting to this point was among the unlikeliest of journeys.
To those who visited Vick in prison and then in the weeks after his release after having served 18 months, Vick seemed different, stripped of the arrogance that had once defined him. It was as if, in the words of CBS sportscaster James Brown, who went to the prison in mid-May to determine whether he could trust Vick enough to do a "60 Minutes" interview with him, "he had had a lot of time to think about what he had done." The interview will be broadcast Sunday night.
Vick having that time to think is exactly what Dungy discovered. When they talked that first day, Dungy spoke a lot about lifestyle and the kinds of men Vick had been surrounding himself with. At some point in the conversation Vick told him his youngest daughter was just a month old when he went to prison and he felt as if he had missed her entire life.
"It was more about himself as a person and taking things for granted and feeling like you are invincible, as opposed to now, where I think he has a better understanding of who he really is, of his responsibility," Dungy said in an interview Friday. "Young people are looking at you. It's got to make a difference and how you carry yourself can impact millions of people you don't know. Sometimes [young men in prison] don't always get it at first. Sometimes the light goes on. And I think it has gone on for Mike."
Not long after Vick was released from prison on May 21 Goodell called Dungy and asked him to be a full-time mentor for Vick. Goodell was beginning the process of determining Vick's reinstatement from an indefinite suspension the commissioner handed down in 2007. Together, they set parameters, conversations Goodell wanted Vick to have. The relationship would only last until Vick signed with a team. Once he did, the mentorship was over.
But Dungy already was committed to Vick. At one point the coach told the quarterback that he might never get another chance at the NFL. His name might have been so polluted that no one would want to take the public relations risk of signing him.
"Hey what happens if you don't?" Dungy said he asked Vick. "How are you going to still be out in the community and proactive even if you're not playing this year? There are going to be people who are going to be skeptical. Some people aren't going to forgive you. How are you going to handle that?"
Vick, by all accounts, seems to have understood. When Brown came to visit him, he repeatedly said that the bad things that happened to him were his own fault. When Brown said he intended to grill him about dogfighting and his torturing of dogs, Vick told him: "I want to tell the truth. I want the tough questions."Humane Campaign
Early in the year, with Vick's release pending, his attorney Martin and Judy Smith, a crisis-management consultant working for Vick, contacted Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Vick, they said, was interested in talking with him about doing work for the society. Pacelle was skeptical. After all it was the humane society that had pushed the hardest for the prosecution of Vick, urging prosecutors in Surry County, Va., to indict him on dogfighting charges and then taking their pleas to federal prosecutors when local charges never came. And even after Vick pled guilty in 2007, it was Pacelle who campaigned for the harshest sentence possible. And now Vick wanted to speak to him?
Martin and Smith were adamant, and Pacelle said he began to wonder about the advantages of having Vick -- the most visible face of dogfighting -- on his side. So in late May, just days before Vick was to be released from prison, Pacelle -- like Dungy and Brown before him -- made the drive to Leavenworth. When they were finally together, Vick looked at Pacelle and apologized for the way he had treated his dogs. He began to describe the things he had done, "horrible things," Pacelle said in an interview Friday.
Then Vick said he wanted to make amends. He wanted to do something to help.
Pacelle went to the society's board and began the process of trying to determine a role for Vick in the organization. At first, there was resistance, Pacelle said. Some board members were vehemently opposed to the idea. But Pacelle argued that an agreement with Vick might go a long way toward preventing more dogfighting, especially in urban areas where the society estimates 100,000 people -- many of them minors -- are fighting dogs. Slowly, board members began to agree with Pacelle. A few held out, saying they understood the logic but just couldn't bring themselves to work with Vick. Nonetheless, it was a consensus. If Vick was sincere, they should give him a chance.
Pacelle went back to Vick, by then out of prison and under home confinement in Virginia.
"I'm not interested in you doing a [public service announcement], a one-shot deal," Pacelle said he told the quarterback. He proposed that Vick become an ambassador in the society's fight against street dogfighting, that Vick make two visits a month to cities to speak against dogfighting, to warn children of the dangers of being caught and the harm the fighting does to the animals.
"He said, 'I'm with you on that, I will agree to that,' " Pacelle said. "He made the point, 'I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.' "
Before Goodell held his July 22 hearing with Vick, a precursor to the quarterback's reinstatement, he called Pacelle to determine the nature of Vick's relationship with the Humane Society. The call was informational. Goodell did not seek a recommendation and Pacelle did not offer one. He simply told the commissioner the terms of his agreement with Vick.Finding the Right Fit
Once Vick was reinstated on July 27, interest among NFL teams in signing him grew. Dungy has said that as many as a dozen teams called him about Vick. Eventually five seemed the most likely to make a move, and Dungy said several times earlier in the week that someone would sign him by the week's end.
The Eagles' first overture was exploratory. Starting quarterback Donovan McNabb, a friend of Vick's from when he hosted Vick on a recruiting trip in college at Syracuse, had lobbied the team to look at him. Then, on Monday, the team's backup quarterback, Kevin Kolb, injured his left knee. Another quarterback was needed. Negotiations heated up.
At some point in the past several days, Vick met Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. Lurie, an animal lover who owns a dog who was rescued from an abusive situation, said he talked to Goodell and Dungy. After a favorable report from Dungy, Lurie met with Vick. Another tentative deal was drawn.
"We don't measure him on yardage," Lurie said Friday. "My own measurement of Michael Vick will be 100 percent: Is he able to create social change in this horrendous area of animal cruelty? Whether he is successful with us on the field -- sure, I hope he is. But his legend and whether we are giving him a second chance will be successful if he can diminish the level of animal cruelty. That's it. If he is not proactive, he won't be on the team because that's part of the agreement."