RICHMOND, Va. -- Once he posed in a Superman shirt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On Monday he stood in a courtroom and later in a hotel ballroom, no longer invulnerable or impervious, an NFL superstar revealed as all too human.
On the day he became a convicted felon, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick indicated that he, perhaps contrary to popular belief, has both a heart and a conscience. When he turned toward his family after court was adjourned, his look was one of abject shame. His blue suit seemed a size too large, adding to the sensation that this 27-year-old athlete was somehow just a little boy gone way, way wrong.
Forty-five minutes later and two blocks away, Vick met the assembled media for the first time in 3 1/2 months. He deflected nothing. ("I'm not pointing fingers," he said, twice.) He kept using the word "totally," saying, "I'm totally disappointed in myself" and "I'm totally responsible."
He didn't read from a text. He walked to the lectern and said, by way of introduction, "Most of my life I've been a football player, not a public speaker." Then he made as graceful a speech as anyone will ever deliver on the worst day of his/her life. He apologized often. He admitted lying to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. ("I was ashamed," he said.) He condemned dogfighting as "a terrible thing" and said, "I do reject it."
And then this: "I offer my deepest apology to everybody out there in the world who was affected by this, and if I'm more disappointed with myself than anybody by this, it's because of all the young kids I let down. ... I hope that every young kid out there ... will use me as an example to using better judgment and making better decisions."
In sum, Vick said all the things we've waited to hear him say, and he said them not as part of some legal bargain but as a plea to the rest of humankind. In his conspicuous devastation, he evinced the universal desire to be understood and, yes, forgiven.
He said he'd "found Jesus" and "turned my life over to God," and skeptics will note that a disproportionate number of religious conversions occur when the convert is about to become a convict.
Somehow, though, nothing about Vick rang false this day. He kept saying, "Yes, sir" to Judge Henry E. Hudson, even as Hudson delineated all the rights a convicted felon forfeits - to vote, to bear arms, to serve on a jury - and then noted that, the plea bargain notwithstanding, he could serve the full five years if the judge so ordains. Did Vick understand?
Could this have been, as his lawyer, Billy Martin, said, our first post-dogfight look at "the real Michael Vick"? We can only hope.
Vick will go to prison and serve his NFL suspension, and then there'll be the rest of his life. It need not be a tale of woe. With the right amount of contrition (from him) and compassion (from us), it might even become a heartening story in three acts: The rise, the fall, the redemption.
Vick: "I will redeem myself. I have to."
I should stipulate that I thought I'd come to know the real Michael Vick years ago. I wrote, several times, that Vick was a decent fellow who cared deeply about doing the right things.
On Monday, I walked within three feet of Vick on the way out of the courtroom and tried twice to make eye contact. And twice Vick looked away, as if to say, "I'm sorry I wasn't the person you thought."
It was a sobering spectacle, seeing this worker of athletic wonders admit to being a criminal. And if that's the last we ever hear from Vick, this will have been, as Martin averred, "a tragic situation."
But as Michael Vick stood before the cameras, a humbled man trying not to cry but in no way trying to duck, here's what the same guy thought:
There's hope for this one yet.
Mark Bradley writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.