The Michael Vick Experience: From Prison to Redemption, 2007-2017 (pt.1)

This three part series walks through the rise, fall, and redemption of Michael Vick, NFL’s outcast turned prodigal son. Read parts two and three here.

“Still touched down cause I was off Artell. Had dreams of breaking Mike Vick out of jail. Took the underground rail to the end that failed.”
– Common featuring Pharrell “Gladiator”

This November marked the ten year anniversary of one of sport’s most tragic stories. NFL superstar and cultural icon Michael Vick began serving a 23 month prison sentence for his appalling involvement in an illegal dog fighting ring in Virginia. The uncontainable number 7 became inmate #33765183. At the time it appeared as though the dynamic quarterback’s career was over. Many folks believed this young black man had thrown his life away. ‘The Michael Vick experience’ was a dance between trouble and triumph on and off the field. He was the most thrilling athlete of a generation who became the most reviled. He lost $70 million of a $130 million contract due to his incarceration. Vick started from the bottom, went to the top, and right back to the bottom. A decade ago ‘The ‘Michael Vick experience’ appeared to be a contemporary Greek tragedy. Today his story can be viewed through a lens of overwhelming redemption. It’s a comeback story worthy of a Hollywood movie. Yet, his road to redemption has been bumpy at times. Even today some of his most loyal supporters question if he has sold his soul in an attempt to rebuild his blemished image.

The Fall of Mike Vick
The United States District Court in Richmond, Virginia, felt like the center of the world on August 27, 2009. People – media members, sports fans, local residents, and angry animal rights advocates – lined the streets outside of the courthouse. ESPN reporter Kelly Naqi says that the network hired college students to get in line at 4:00 am to secure their workers seats inside. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was scheduled to accept a plea agreement. If you are of a certain age you remember Vick standing there dressed in a navy blue suit and gold tie looking apologetically into cameras saying the following:

“I am disappointed in myself to say the least… I hope that every kid watching this uses me as an example to make better decisions. Once again I offer my deepest apologies to everyone…I will redeem myself. I have to.”
– Michael Vick

You also remember the countless images on the nightly news of Vick being escorted from the courthouse by U.S. marshals. Just months earlier Vick was lighting up the highlight reels with his electrifying play.

How did it come to this?

In the summer of 2001 Vick met Tony Taylor (a.k.a “T”) outside of a barbershop in Newport News, Virginia. Taylor convinced him build a dogfighting compound. The 15-acre compound, located at 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithfield, Virginia, opened in 2002. It was nicknamed Bad Newz Kennels and ran by Vick, Taylor, and two other men: Purnell Peace (a.ka. “P-Funk”) and Quanis Phillips (a.k.a “Q”). Peace was Taylor’s cousin. Philips was Vick’s former high school football teammate. Vick and Phillips were the only men in the group who did not have criminal records. Taylor relocated to Virginia after serving time for drug trafficking in New York. His cousin Purnell had done time for a drug related crime dating back to the 1990s. On April 20, 2007, Vick’s cousin Davon Boddie was arrested outside of a Newport News nightclub, which was a hangout spot for drug dealers. Boddie was charged with drug possession and intent to sell. At the time he was living at Vick’s compound. State police and the local sheriff’s office obtained a warrant to search the compound. When the authorities went to the compound in search of drugs, instead they found something much more grotesque. It was a two story building which housed rooms to hold dogs, a room with medical supplies, and ring for the death matches between the animals. The walls were painted black. Authorities removed 66 dogs and the bodies of 8 dogs buried on the premises. Jim Knorr was assigned to investigate the case. Knorr learned from a convicted dog fighter turned undercover informant that Vick was affiliated with Bad Newz Kennels. He was playing on a golf course in Atlanta when the news of the police raid reached him.

Initially, Vick denied having any knowledge of dog fights taking place on his property. He swore his innocence to Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. This was a boldfaced lie!

For years the Falcons administration wondered why he went to Virginia multiple times a month. The jig was up when Vick’s co-defendants began snitching. Tony Taylor, who had been kicked out of the compound months earlier, became the authorities’ star witness. His loose lips revealed pertinent information about the operation. Taylor also supplied a photograph of himself with Vick at a dog fight in North Carolina. For his cooperation, Taylor received a reduced sentence of two months in prison. Peace and Phillips received 18 and 21 months in prison, respectively, for testifying against Vick. Four months to the day of Boddie’s arrest Vick pleaded guilty to a federal felony dogfighting conspiracy charge in the United States v. Michael Vick. In his statement Vick admitted to killing approximately 6 to 8 dogs by various gruesome methods such as drowning, electrocution, hanging, shooting, and slamming their heads into the pavement. The majority of the dogs involved were pit bull terriers. Men brought dogs from New York, Maryland, the Carolinas, Texas, and other parts of Virginia to participate in the fights. Large amounts of money would be bet on these fights which could be as short as 10 minutes or as long as three hours. Vick was suspended by the NFL and released from the Falcons for his involvement. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison and ordered to pay $900,000 for the care of all the dogs rescued from the compound.

He spent the first few months at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia. Because Vick had failed his urine test due to smoking marijuana he applied to participate in a drug rehabilitation program at Leavenworth Penitentiary, a minimum security federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. This was done in an attempt to gain early release for completing the program. Vick spent the remaining 17 months in Kansas. His days were filled with mopping floors at predawn for 12 cents an hour, stepping over cockroaches, playing chess, praying, reflecting on his wrongdoings, doing push-ups, and walking on a track three to five times a day to stay in shape. His girlfriend Kijafa Frink moved to Leavenworth to be close to him. She was the mother of his oldest daughter Jada and a newborn daughter named London. Vick also had a son, Mitez, from a previous relationship.

Michael Vick was the second highest earning ($25.4 million) athlete in 2006. Dogfighting cost him a multimillion dollar endorsement deal with Nike, who designed his signature sneaker. Reebok stopped selling his jersey. All merchandise with his name or likeness was removed from NFL, Rawlings, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Sports Authority. In 2008, Vick was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the midst of multiple financial lawsuits and growing debts ($18 million) to creditors. On May 21, 2009, Michael Vick departed Leavenworth Penitentiary a free man. With the recidivism rate for black males being so high his chances of redemption appeared dismal.

The Rise of Mike Vick
Born in Newport News, Virginia, on June 26, 1980, Michael Dwayne Vick was a rose that grew from concrete. His mother Brenda raised him and his siblings Marcus, Courtney, and Christina on her own. His father Michael Boddie was abusive and often absent due to his addictions to alcohol and cocaine. [Boddie was charged with running a large scale heroin distribution ring and money laundering earlier this year.] ( Vick’s family lived in the Ridley Circle Projects. The crack epidemic turned his neighborhood into a breeding ground for addiction, gang violence, and poverty. One summer he remembers hearing gunshots every night. At times he would go fishing to escape the sound of gunfire. Violence was such a way of life for young black males in Bad Newz that they became desensitized to killings and the sight of blood. Vick was only eight-years-old when he witnessed his first dog fight. A self-described dog lover, the young boy was too fascinated by the excitement of the fight to shed a tear for a blood soaked canine.

Fearing that he would follow in his father’s footsteps Brenda Vick sent young Michael to the Boys and Girls Club where he learned to play football. Newport News produced some of the nation’s most prolific high school athletes in the 1990s: Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry, and Allen “A.I.” Iverson. Michael Vick, second cousin to Aaron Brooks, entered high school at the same time in which Curry was the nation’s top football and basketball player. Vick was overshadowed by the UNC Chapel Hill bound Curry despite passing for 4,846 yards and 43 touchdowns and running for 1,048 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Nevertheless, Vick’s exploits attracted the attention of Syracuse University who was looking for the heir apparent to their star quarterback Donovan McNabb. McNabb hosted Vick upon his campus visit and became a mentor/big brother to him. Despite Vick’s friendship with McNabb he chose to attend Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. When Vick arrived on campus Virginia Tech was not viewed as a national power. In 1997 the Virginia Tech Hokies went 9-7. In 1999 the Hokies, led by Vick (a redshirt freshman) went 11-0 and lost to revered blue blood Florida State University in the Nokia Sugar Bowl for the national championship. The game was Vick’s coming out party for the entire nation. He finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy and won an ESPY Award for the nation’s best college football player. The following season he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated college football preview issue. Vick was on the cover striking the famous Heisman pose with the words: “Mr. Electric: Why Michael Vick Has Sparked A Revolution As Quarterback.” Vick entered the NFL draft after his sophomore season. He ran a 4.33 40-yard dash for his pro day workout with NFL scouts, the fastest time ever ran by a quarterback to date.

The Greatest Show on Turf
Most millennials and generation Xers are unfamiliar with the name James “Shack” Harris. Harris was Coach Eddie Robinson’s 6’ 4”, 215 lb quarterback at Grambling State University. Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969. Five years later he became the first black quarterback to start in a regular season NFL game. He played 12 seasons in the league before going onto front office positions with the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite being one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects at Grambling, Harris was not drafted until the eighth round. At this point in history the quarterback position was reserved for white players. (William C. Rhoden, Forty Million Dollar Slaves) Racist ideology propagated the myth that black males lacked the intelligence and discipline to lead an offense. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon was forced to begin his professional career in the Canadian Football League even though he was the most valuable player in the 1978 Rose Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons became trailblazers by making Michael Vick the first black quarterback to be selected with the first overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft. According to Vick’s former Atlanta teammate Kynan Forney, Vick was a different type of cat from the very beginning. During his debut game against the San Francisco 49ers the flamboyant Rookie called his team into the huddle. Forney says Vick stopped in mid sentence, pulled out some chapstick, and coolly applied it to his lips. When the play resumed he ran for 25 yards. ‘The Michael Vick Experience’ had begun!

Vick was named the team’s starter in 2002. At the age of 22 he led the Falcons in a historic 27-7 win against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the playoffs. Green Bay had not lost a home playoff game in their 83-year history. Vick lost to his mentor Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles the next week. Nevertheless, it was evident that a changing of the guard at the quarterback position was underway. The Falcons awarded him the highest contract in NFL history, $130 million. Nike then launched a promotional campaign called ‘The Michael Vick Experience’. In 2006 Michael Vick became the first and only quarterback to rush for over 1,000 years. He rushed for 173 yards in one game against the Minnesota Vikings. His running ability revolutionized the quarterback position and opened the door for the following nontraditional quarterbacks like Vince Young, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota, Robert Griffith III,Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Colin Kaepernick.

Vick’s electrifying athleticism was not the only thing that landed him on the cover of Madden 2017 and separated him from his white counterparts on the field such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. His swagger, cornrows, bling bling, and style on and off the field elevated him to cultural icon status in the hip-hop community. The Michael Vick wave coincided with Atlanta’s emergence as the home of the nation’s hottest hip-hop artists. Vick danced alongside Usher in T.I.’s “Rubberband Man” music video.

“There was a time when you couldn’t shoot a video and Michael Vick didn’t have a cameo it wasn’t too cool of a video.”
– Lil Wayne

“He was the one that everyone from hip-hop was like…there’s a Vick game on. Let’s go home and watch it.”
– Nore

“He could turn something into nothing. That’s why we embraced him so much because we did the exact same thing.”
– Scarface

“Michael Jordan was the greatest of all time, but he wasn’t hip-hop. Michael Vick was every young kid’s dream playing in the slums. He was that relatable. Everything Mike did became a metaphor for an artist to rap about it.”
– Capone

“I can make the similarity to Allen Iverson. There was a point in our community when we all wanted to be like Allen Iverson. So we wore our hair like Allen Iverson. There was a time when we all wanted to be like Michael Vick.”
– Lil Wayne

Michael Vick’s defiant, I don’t give a f_ _k attitude made him “the hood’s” favorite athlete. Yet it alienated many whites and older blacks unimpressed with hip-hop culture. Over time he gained a reputation for being the first to party and the last to arrive at work. Vick relied on his natural ability rather than study his playbook and game tapes. He was uncooperative during interviews with media members. He was fined $2,500 for giving fans the finger in the stands. He was stopped by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Miami International airport for possession of marijuana. Then Sonya Elliot, a 26-year-old woman accused him of infecting her with Herpes Simplex 2. It was revealed that Vick had used the alias “Ron Mexico” to receive treatment for the STD. Vick admits that at this stage in his life he allowed money and fame to change him for the worst. It would take spending nearly two years behind metal bars for him to change his ways.

This three part series walks through the rise, fall, and redemption of Michael Vick, NFL’s outcast turned prodigal son. Read parts two and three here.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.