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The Road to Bad Newz
November 26, 2007
Through his rise and fall, Michael Vick stayed loyal to a tight circle of friends—homeboys who used him and ultimately sold him out. He's not the first pro athlete to be swallowed up by his old neighborhood
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November 26, 2007

The Road To Bad Newz

Through his rise and fall, Michael Vick stayed loyal to a tight circle of friends—homeboys who used him and ultimately sold him out. He's not the first pro athlete to be swallowed up by his old neighborhood

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IN AUGUST 2002, Andrew Young, a former ambassador to the United Nations and onetime aide to Martin Luther King Jr., met with Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. The meeting was not scheduled or scripted, and it lasted only a few minutes. Vick was coming off the field after a training-camp practice at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and Young pulled him aside.

Like most Atlanta residents that summer, Young, the city's former mayor, was excited about Vick's athletic gifts. During the eight games Vick played as a rookie in 2001, he had electrified the league and a sagging franchise, raising high hopes for '02, which Vick would validate by leading the Falcons to their first playoff win in four years and making the Pro Bowl. A popular Powerade commercial broadcast at the time showed Vick throwing a ball out of a stadium and knocking players off their feet with the velocity of his passes. Live on Sundays and in fantastical advertisements, Vick appeared to be an otherworldly talent.

But Young, as a black member of the Falcons' board of directors and an ordained minister, noticed things about Vick that fans and advertisers probably missed. He hadn't joined a local church. He didn't show any interest in socializing with prominent African-Americans from Atlanta who could provide advice on handling life in the public spotlight. He was "young and country," Young recalls, and he hung out almost exclusively with friends from his hometown of Newport News, Va. When Vick's rookie season ended, Young noted, he immediately "jumped on a plane back to Virginia."

In their brief talk, Young told Vick that being a star is a burden and that he needed to surround himself with smart, trustworthy people. He gave Vick his number and urged him to call. Over the next five years Young attempted to steer him toward a church near Newport News that he hoped Vick would attend.

It is easy now—with Vick having surrendered on Monday to federal authorities in Richmond to begin his incarceration ahead of his Dec. 10 sentencing, when he faces as much as 18 months for conspiracy to operate a dogfighting enterprise—to view Young's intervention with Vick as unsuccessful. Young reached out to Vick at a pivotal moment in Vick's maturation, but "everything I tried failed," Young says. Vick never embraced the Atlanta community. He didn't visit the church Young recommended, and he continued to socialize almost exclusively with friends connected to the old neighborhood, some of whom would later be complicit in his crimes. It's also easy to settle on the root cause of Vick's problems: He remained "young and country" even as he became one of the biggest and richest brands in sports.

But shortly after Vick pleaded guilty last August, Young, in an interview with SI, introduced a more complex explanation for Vick's downfall. He was victimized by "ghetto loyalty," Young said, taken down by an obligation he felt to his friends from home. "It's a heady life, being a pro athlete, but it's also a lonely life," Young said. "And often the only people athletes feel comfortable with are the guys they grew up with on the streets." Many athletes are trapped in that situation, according to Young, and it's not entirely their fault.

It's a difficult premise to embrace. It suggests that athletes—primarily black athletes from poor backgrounds—are held captive by a code that requires them to help neighborhood friends, even to their own detriment, and that therefore they are not always responsible for their actions. Still, it's a theory gaining traction among those who study and work with athletes; they point to several high-profile cases, none bigger than Vick's, to illustrate the problem.

"Sometimes the cultural influences athletes face aren't being offset by their advisers, their team, the league they play in," says David Cornwell, an Atlanta-based attorney who has represented Reggie Bush and Gilbert Arenas. "What's left, as we saw with Vick, is a Molotov cocktail."

THERE'S A story from Michael Vick's childhood that seems almost mythical.

Shortly after Vick was born, on June 26, 1980, his father, Michael Boddie, took him into his arms and carried him outside their apartment. Standing in the yard, he raised the naked baby to the starry night sky and told him, "Behold the only thing greater than yourself." It was a line from Roots, uttered by Omoro upon the birth of his son Kunta Kinte. Boddie said later that he did it because he wanted Michael to lead a special life.

When Vick exploded upon the college scene at Virginia Tech in the late 1990s, that tale and others from Vick's childhood flowed from sportswriters' laptops as they chronicled his rise from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood to stardom. Readers learned that Vick had played in the same dirt yard that his father had as a boy, and lived in the same downtrodden Ridley Circle Projects in Newport News. They learned that his father, who worked 12 hours a day to support the family, gave him his first football at age three. They learned that Michael found shelter from gangs and drugs at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Hampton Roads. When Vick announced that he was leaving Virginia Tech two years early for the NFL, he did so at the Boys & Girls Club, a nod to the haven and the people who had protected him.

Vick's rise from Newport News's east end to the NFL made for great copy, but his downfall was an even more compelling story, full of drama, moral questions and a cast of largely unknown characters. There were C.J. Reamon, the nephew of Vick's high school football coach, and Quanis Phillips, a high school teammate and Vick's closest friend. There was Davon Boddie, Vick's first cousin. There were also two older guys from the neighborhood, Tony Taylor and his cousin Adam (Wink) Harris, and Purnell Peace, another Newport News acquaintance. Boddie would inadvertently get the dogfighting investigation rolling when—after his arrest last April for possession of marijuana with intent to sell—he gave, as his home address, the Surry County house where the kennels were located. And Phillips, Taylor and Peace would all plead guilty in the dogfighting case and agree to testify against Vick, thus all but forcing their friend to enter his own guilty plea.

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