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“Falcon For Life” Michael Vick Up Shit-o Creek-o

WWW [NY Daily News]- Four days after being slapped with a federal indictment on dogfighting charges – an 18-page document that outlined gruesome images of the electrocution, hanging, drowning and shooting of pit bulls and the numerous blood sport matches they fought in across state lines – Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick enjoyed perhaps the last two carefree hours he will encounter in the foreseeable future.

Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall and Denver Nuggets point guard Allen Iverson, both from Virginia, played host to a charity flag football game at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk and a free football clinic for kids last Saturday. The big surprise came later, when the two star athletes met up with Vick, whose own star was about to take a precipitous plunge.

“Mike came out and me and A.I., we just went up to him and spent time with him for a couple of hours and just shooting the (expletive),” says Hall. “Just seeing how he was doing. He was so worried about us, the Falcons. I said, ‘Mike, you need to take this time to reflect and focus on yourself and your family and this is important.’ He was so mad and upset that he wasn’t going to be with us (at the opening of training camp due to his arraignment). I said ‘Don’t worry about that.’ He was in pretty good spirits with the situation and we just wanted to go out there and be around him for a little bit.”

The following Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell leveled another blow, banning the three-time Pro Bowler from the Falcons’ training camp. On Thursday, Vick donned a dark suit and tie, took a perp walk up the Richmond federal courthouse ramp amid thunderous boos from protestors across the street and later pleaded not guilty – along with co-defendants Purnell Peace, Quanis Phillips and Tony Taylor – before U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson. Friday, Vick crashed to the basement of his endorsement empire as Nike suspended its multi-million dollar contract with Vick (no pay), the NFL removed all Vick merchandise from its Web site and official league uniform supplier Reebok ceased sales of Vick’s No. 7 jersey.

“His career as an endorser, if not completely ended, is derailed,” says Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., of Vick’s incredible shrinking empire.

Only three years ago Vick sat atop the peak of athletic superstardom after signing the richest pro football contract ever – 10 years, $130 million – and being ordained as a “Falcon for life” by team owner Arthur Blank, while raking in additional millions through endorsements.

Now? The 27-year-old former Virginia Tech star is a national pariah – skewered in the media, on fan blogs and by animal rights advocates. Fan erosion was becoming evident before the indictment, with Vick’s jersey sales falling out of the top 25 list since news of the dogfighting operation on his property gathered steam in recent weeks. With a trial set for Nov. 26, Vick may miss the entire 2007 season. Goodell has already dropped the hammer on several NFL players for violating the league’s conduct policy, notably suspending the Titans’ Adam “Pacman” Jones an entire season for his role in an NBA All-Star Weekend melee at a strip club. Even if he is acquitted, Vick will need major image rehabilitation, and may have to find a new job should Blank sever ties with the one-time face of the franchise.

It is all quite a change from the “soft-spoken guy” DeAngelo Hall remembers when Vick starred at Virginia Tech and later transitioned into one of the most exciting players in the league, with 3,859 rushing yards and 11,505 passing yards over six seasons.

“He’s a soft-spoken guy. It is rare to have a quarterback who is that type of player on the field and then the total opposite off the field,” says Hall. “You see a guy play like that on the field you obviously think he is going to be the same flashy, flamboyant, always-want-attention type of guy. That is totally not him – just video games, fishing, just hanging out.”

* * *
It is high noon in Richmond and the media waits to enter the federal courthouse, the line snaking along 10th Street, reporters trying to shield themselves from the scorching sun. ESPN has paid several University of Richmond students to arrive at 5 a.m. to camp out at the front of the media line so the network can secure spots for the 3:30 p.m. Michael Vick arraignment.

Across the courthouse entrance on E. Main Street, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and scores of Vick opponents crowd the sidewalk holding signs that say “Neuter Mike Vick” and “Sack Vick.” A police helicopter circles overhead. Cops flank every street within a one-block radius, barking at pedestrians and reporters to get on the sidewalk. Charles Nixon of Richmond walks among the crowd carrying a poster that reads, “Black Slaves Treated Worse.” There are some Bush haters in the mix. And, of course, several dog owners proudly display their pets, though some pooches look as if they would rather be in the air conditioning somewhere.

At 2:54 sharp, Vick emerges from a black SUV, and gets hit with a vitriol worse than anything Barry Bonds has heard in opposing ball parks. The bond hearing and arraignment are quick – all four men plead not guilty and issue their preference of trial by jury. Vick shows little emotion during the proceeding, letting lead attorney Billy Martin do most of the talking and posturing. The four men are released without bond and Vick exits the courthouse just over an hour after he arrives, again showered with jeers.

The Richmond scene last week was not nearly the circus that surrounded the O.J. Simpson police chase and subsequent murder trial over a decade ago, but Simpson had long since retired from the gridiron when he went to trial. Vick, barring serious injury, was looking at another decade of NFL success before the April 25 drug raid on his Smithfield, Va. property.

Authorities focusing on a drug bust of Vick’s cousin Davon Boddie, descended on the 15-acre property on Moonlight Road and found the makings of modern-day slasher film: a “rape stand” used to force female dogs to submit to breeding while under restraints, a prod or “parting” stick used to pry dogs’ mouths open and treadmills used to condition dogs, according to the indictment. More sickening are the “overt acts” outlined in the indictment, describing how the defendants executed pit bulls who did not perform well in test sessions. Boddie, who gave the Moonlight Road address to authorities after his drug bust, is not mentioned in the indictment against his cousin.

* * *
The white, stucco two-story home on Moonlight is abandoned now, though the outdoor lights on the walls are still illuminated. A motorboat sits on a trailer. The driveway and yard perimeter are blocked off by a gate and fence. There are few signs of the alleged horror that went on, dating back to 2001 when Vick paid about $34,000 for the property and Taylor hatched the plan on the perfect site for “Bad Newz Kennels.”

It is peaceful along the narrow road and at the Ferguson Grove Baptist Church across from Vick’s property.

Vick’s Moonlight Road neighbor Earnest Hardy, 56, lives just on the other side of a small forested area from Vick’s property line. Hardy still denies he ever witnessed or heard any dogfighting in the last six years at Vick’s 1915 Moonlight address. Sitting in the dark of his living room on a recent afternoon before a fierce downpour blankets the area, Hardy tells a reporter he only saw Vick a few times at the home. Hardy was friendlier with Taylor and Peace, who were often at Moonlight taking care of odd jobs.

“The way they respected me, it was just like family. They called me ‘Pop’ when they was around.”

Hardy, like many in Surrey County, see the case dividing along racial lines. “This is about people having a problem with a $100 million black man in Surry County,” says Hardy, who is black.

Gerald Poindexter, the local prosecutor in nearby Surry (pop. 6,829), has not filed charges against Vick or the other three men, although Poindexter is still investigating and says a grand jury is expected to meet again in September to consider handing down an indictment.

Vick has enough to worry about on a federal level anyway. Prosecutors at Thursday’s arraignment announced they would file a “superceding indictment” next month, paving the way for additional charges against Vick, who now faces conspiracy charges. And Friday night, the Associated Press reported the first bombshell development following the arraignment – that Taylor, known as “T”, agreed to a plea bargain and will appear in court tomorrow morning. Whether Vick follows suit and accepts a plea agreement remains to be seen. “Usually what happens in that (type of) case, one of the co-defendants will give up information. Whoever talks first ends up with the best deal. I don’t know if that is something that will happen in this case,” says William Frick, a former prosecutor for the South Carolina Attorney General’s office who has prosecuted at least a half a dozen dogfighting cases, including that of David Tant in 2004. Tant, considered one of the top dogfighters in the country, is serving 40 years in a South Carolina prison for dogfighting and assault and battery.

If Vick’s case does go to trial, Frick says the quarterback will need to show that he was only tangentially involved. “The clear thing (Vick) would have to do is say ‘I wasn’t (at Moonlight Road property)’ and ‘I didn’t know what was going on. I fronted some money and I didn’t know what (anyone) was doing up there.’ Whether that is going to be enough, I don’t know,” Frick says. “There is a big presumption against him right now. That is not how our system works but that is how it works out in many of these animal cases. Any time animals or children are involved, they are highly emotional and people tend to believe what they read versus all the information.”

It may be too late for Vick in the court of public opinion in much of the country. For every Lisa Simmons, a 40-year-old diehard Falcons fan who pays $1,500 per ticket for four season tickets in section 103 of the Georgia Dome and who says Vick is “still on top of the world to me” during an open Falcons practice, there is a wave of anti-Vick sentiment.

“This guy’s never going to be the same,” says Marc Ganis. “And I’m not even sure he knows what he’s done is as bad as it is viewed in public. Time is not on his side.”

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