RICHMOND, Va. -- NFL star quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty yesterday to a dogfighting charge, then took his first steps toward what he hopes will be redemption. Saying "I need to grow up," the quarterback apologized to the league and to the "young kids that I've let down who look at Michael Vick as a role model."
His hands thrust deep into his suit pockets and his voice almost too soft to register above the clicking of camera shutters, Vick offered "my deepest apologies to everyone" for "using bad judgment and making bad decisions" related to a dogfighting ring he admitted bankrolling in which underperforming pit bills were drowned or hanged.
"Dogfighting is a terrible thing, and I didn't reject it," Vick said during a speech delivered from the ballroom of a downtown hotel shortly after entering his plea at the U.S. courthouse a few blocks away. "I will redeem myself. I have to."
Vick repeatedly replied "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" as U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson asked him whether he understood his plea. Hudson set Vick's sentencing for Dec. 10.
The judge emphasized that he was not bound to an agreement Vick reached with prosecutors recommending that he receive a year to 18 months in prison in return for cooperating with federal authorities. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum five-year term.
"You're taking your chances here," Hudson said. "You're going to have to live with whatever decision I make."
Billy Martin, one of Vick's lawyers, said: "We hope that Judge Hudson will see the real Mike Vick." He said all that is visible now is "an aberration."
Experts characterized yesterday's proceedings and apology as the beginning of a period of atonement for the Atlanta Falcons player. In just a few months, he has fallen from a celebrity athlete making millions of dollars in salary and endorsements to a scorned perpetrator in the view of many. Vick, 27, said because of the case he has "turned my life over to God."
Yellow police tape and barricades kept several hundred demonstrators and the media away from the stone courthouse yesterday before Vick arrived. "All Dogs Will go 2 Heaven. Will Vick?" said one placard.
Brooke Slater, a physical therapy student from Richmond, was one of the demonstrators. She carried a placard featuring a color sketch of an oversized dog holding a leash tied around Vick's neck. "No dog would do this to a human," it read.
Slater said Vick could begin the redemption process "by using some of the money he's made as a celebrity athlete" on animal causes.
"This is the beginning of his attempt to rehabilitate his public image," said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. "I think it's all about his being able to play in the NFL again."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Vick indefinitely without pay on Friday until the conclusion of the legal proceedings.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank has not ruled out the possibility of an NFL comeback by Vick, who signed a 10-year, $130 million contract in 2004. But Blank did not suggest that Vick would return with the Falcons, who are studying their contractual obligations regarding the quarterback and are pursuing millions of dollars in bonus money from Vick.
"He has let down his fans and his team, he's damaged the reputation of our club and the entire National Football League, and betrayed the trust of many people," Blank said at a press conference broadcast on the team's Web site. Blank said that if Vick "pays his debt to society and when he does the proper self-reflection" he might have a chance to play in the league again.
Chris Anderson, of The Marketing Arm, a national marketing agency, said Vick "will have to go above and beyond what's expected and required of him in terms of restitution. That might be large donations and long-term partnerships with animal rights organizations."
"Of course, if it's not genuine, Americans will see through it. I'd recommend a series of face-to-face closed-door meetings with top animal rights leaders to begin a dialogue," Anderson said.
Not all the demonstrators criticized Vick. Feleecy Brown of Norfolk, near where Vick grew up in Newport News, arrived at the courthouse wearing her Vick No. 7 football jersey and said he was being unfairly vilified because of his fame. The speedy Vick, the league's No. 1 draft pick in 2001 from Virginia Tech, has been one of the NFL's most marketed players during his six seasons.
"He's not a child molester. Just leave him alone," Brown said.
It is uncommon for high-profile defendants to speak directly to the public and the media before their cases are resolved, as Vick did yesterday, according to Tobias. "He's trying to play in the court of public opinion and perhaps to the judge in looking contrite," Tobias said.
The professor said he didn't know if Vick would score any points with Hudson, though.
"Most of the judges generally follow the recommendations of the U.S. attorneys as to sentencing," Tobias said. "He [Hudson] has a reputation for being on the high end, particularly in public corruption cases. It's more than a reputation, it's a fact."
The case began in late April with a search of a Surry County, Va., property owned by Vick after a cousin of Vick's was arrested on drug charges. Vick said he was rarely at the property and initially denied being involved with dogfighting.
Before yesterday, Anderson and others had criticized Vick and his lawyers for failing to address the allegations sooner. Martin, the attorney, said Vick had been under orders by his legal team not to speak publicly until they deemed it appropriate.
Vick's handlers said they wanted Vick to speak yesterday in his own words, without reading from a text, so he would not look programmed.
"For most of my life, I've been a football player, not a public speaker," he said.
Vick's grandfather, James Boddie, when reached at his South Baltimore home yesterday morning said, "I don't care to speak about this anymore."
In an interview with WJZ-TV last week, Boddie said "I am disappointed, hurt and angry. He had a $137 million contract and threw it away for dogfighting. Where's his head?"
Ravens receivers coach Mike Johnson, who was on the Falcons' coaching staff from 2002 through 2005, said Vick can't "undo" what he has done.
"I feel sadness, compassion that he put himself in that situation because he's not a bad person, I don't think," Johnson said. "He's made a bad judgment. He's done some things that no one likes or can accept. Now he's going to have to pay a price for it, and it's going to be a big price."
Sun reporters Childs Walker and Don Markus contributed to this report.