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
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
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.
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.
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.
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