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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 10:19 a.m., Tuesday, August 21, 2007

NFL: Childhood friends seen as Vick's undoing

By Mark Maske
The Washington Post

BROOKLYN, Md. — James Boddie rose from a leather chair in the living room of his townhouse, minutes from downtown Baltimore, and walked upstairs to retrieve something. "I want to show you this," he said.

He'd been telling stories about his grandson, Michael Vick, stories about how a poor kid from a rough neighborhood in Newport News, Va., could use football to build a fancy house for his mother and a life of fame and riches for himself. He had been telling of taking a train to New York to be with his grandson and other relatives when the Atlanta Falcons made Vick, a quarterback from Virginia Tech with a powerful left arm and magical legs, the top pick in the NFL draft in April 2001.

Boddie returned with a frame containing a draft-day picture of Vick and a signed commemorative draft T-shirt. That was a fond memory indeed. "Got a chance to meet Joe Theismann and all those guys," Boddie said.

For those who care about Vick, it has become a struggle to keep the good times from becoming fading memories. Yesterday, Vick, 27, agreed to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges and likely will be sentenced to 12 to 18 months in prison. He also faces further possible Virginia state charges and an NFL suspension.

An athletic career, once so promising that it earned him a $130 million contract, is in ruins.

"It's just sad when someone has that much God-given talent for something," former Falcons coach Dan Reeves said, "and it's potentially going to be wasted."

There are multiple explanations for Vick's downfall, according to interviews conducted the past few weeks with family members and Vick's former teammates, and a review of court documents related to the case. Vick could not be reached to comment; some key figures in his life refused to be interviewed.

The most prominent theory, espoused by Boddie and Reeves, blames much of Vick's troubles on his continued association with childhood friends who have questionable pasts. Those same friends were the ones who agreed to testify against Vick in exchange for more lenient sentences for their roles in the crimes.

Court papers, however, portray Vick as someone whose legal troubles are his own doing. They show Vick as the unquestioned leader of a vicious dogfighting operation, not only financing it but carrying out some of its most heinous crimes, including the killings of dogs.

It is difficult to find a greater non-injury-related demise of a top American professional athlete in the prime of his career.

"He could have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache ... if he'd done what was right from the beginning," Michael Boddie, Vick's father, said yesterday.

Loyalty to longtime friends

Michael Boddie met his future wife, Brenda Vick, when they lived across a courtyard from one another in Newport News. The young couple had four children but didn't marry until just before the birth of the youngest child.

Michael Boddie spent time in the Army and eventually became a welder, like his father; he also was a carpenter. Periodic layoffs made money tight and Brenda, according to James Boddie, worked at Kmart and as a bus driver at those times.

One person who knew Michael Vick as a boy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Michael Boddie was in and out of young Michael's life and Vick's "stabilizers" were his mother and grandmother. James and Michael Boddie dispute that. James said the characterization sprang from the fact that Brenda attended Michael Vick's games at Virginia Tech while Michael Boddie usually stayed home with the other children.

"You've never seen me, have you?" Michael Boddie said in a telephone interview last week. "You never see me in interviews or anything. But I've been in his life. There was the two and a half years I was in the Army that I wasn't, but I came back three months before he turned 3. Me and Brenda got our first apartment together in '83. We lived in the same house, under the same roof, and raised our children. All those stories you've heard about me leaving my children? It's not true. Someone persuaded my wife and child to make it seem like he came from a broken home to help his chances in the NFL. This is what was told to my family and they bought into. I didn't say anything about it because I didn't want to put my wife in no bad light and hurt my son."

Michael Vick grew up in the crime- and drug-ridden southeast part of Newport News, nicknamed "Bad Newz." Some accounts of Vick's life have maintained he might have been headed toward trouble but chose football over the streets. James Boddie said the Vick children were never in trouble more serious than breaking a window playing ball.

Vick's younger brother, Marcus, would follow him to Virginia Tech as a quarterback; his second cousin Aaron Brooks would become an NFL quarterback. But Michael Vick's ability transcended theirs and was apparent from the moment he first picked up a football with his left hand — which was odd, since he did most other things right-handed. "It was just a gift, and it was a way out," James Boddie said.

Michael Vick led the Hokies to the national title game in his first season as a starter. He played two seasons at Virginia Tech after being redshirted for a season.

James Boddie said his grandson got homesick at times during college and would go back to Newport News to hang out with old associates from his neighborhood. Reeves, Vick's first NFL head coach, said: "That's really what got him into trouble. He was indicted with three people that he should have been as far away from as east from west."

Former Virginia Tech linebacker Brenden Hill, who knows both brothers, said the Vicks remained highly loyal to their home town and the people they knew there.

"It's kind of what is involved in this situation right now," said Hill, who was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 2004 for an incident in which he, Marcus Vick and another Tech football player served alcohol to teenage girls. "I want to make it clear that's who's gotten him even involved in this situation. What brought him to the hot water, I would say, is because of the fact that he's loyal."

Vick developed into one of the NFL's most exciting and marketable players even though his quarterbacking lacked polish. He remained a relatively inaccurate passer, but his athleticism was breathtaking, and he helped the Falcons to some success. They reached the NFC championship game in the 2004 season before losing at Philadelphia. In December 2004, Vick signed a 10-year, $130 million contract extension that included $37 million in bonuses.

Reeves, the Falcons' head coach for Vick's first three NFL seasons, spoke to the quarterback about his off-field associations after police reportedly stopped two men in Newport News in a truck owned by Vick and found marijuana.

"I told him, `Mike, you just can't afford to do that. ... When something like this happens, the headlines won't be about that guy. They'll be about the car being in your name,' " Reeves said. "In three years, that was the only time I had to talk to him about that."

"Brenda used to tell me every time she would go to Atlanta — he's got this big mansion down there in Atlanta, and (Michael) ain't no cook or housekeeper," James Boddie said. "So he's got a bunch of guys hanging around all the time, the girls running in and out. So she went down there and cleaned house: `Everybody just get out! Get out! Get out! You guys are just sucking up my son's money. You're really not doing nothing for him.' I think that's when he met these guys."

Surrounded by enablers

In October 2004, Vick and two men — one later identified to police as Quanis Phillips, a co-defendant in the dogfighting case and a longtime friend — were passing through a security checkpoint at the Atlanta airport. One of the two men traveling with Vick took a watch that belonged to a Transportation Security Administration screener named Alvin Spencer, who'd placed the fake Rolex on the X-ray belt to pass the time during a slow period. Spencer eventually got his watch back but, he said, only after being pressured by police not to press charges, to preserve Vick's reputation. An internal affairs review by the Atlanta police concluded the investigation had been handled properly; some TSA officials believed otherwise. Falcons executive Billy "White Shoes" Johnson intervened on Vick's behalf and acknowledged in the internal affairs investigation that he offered Spencer money, although no payment ultimately was made.

Last year, Vick reached a settlement with a woman who had sued him and claimed he knowingly gave her herpes. Last season, Vick was fined $10,000 by the NFL and agreed to donate an additional $10,000 to charity after making an obscene gesture toward fans at the Georgia Dome. In January, a water bottle surrendered by Vick at a security checkpoint at the Miami airport was found to have a secret compartment and what a police report called a marijuana-like substance; authorities later said that no evidence of drugs was found and no charges were filed.

Several people within the NFL said Vick was surrounded by enablers, from his friends to his business advisers, and probably developed a sense that any transgression would be overlooked and any problem fixed for him. "It was this world of `yes' men around him and he thought his status put him above it all, including the law," said one top executive within the league.

James Boddie said Michael Vick "formed a bond" with cousin Davon Boddie. Authorities were conducting a drug raid focused on Davon Boddie in April when they reportedly found dogfighting equipment at Vick's property in Virginia. Officials at the Humane Society have said they had heard rumors beginning in 2004 of Vick being involved in dogfighting, but had been unable to substantiate them.

The federal indictment of Vick, Phillips and co-defendants Purnell Peace and Tony Taylor said that Vick, Phillips and Taylor decided in early 2001 to start a dogfighting venture. Vick bought a property in Smithfield, Va., in June 2001.

The indictment portrays Vick as being an active member of the dogfighting ring, attending and even traveling to dogfights, paying off bets lost on fights and helping kill dogs that didn't perform well. Taylor pleaded guilty last month and signed a statement saying that Vick funded the dogfighting operation and its gambling efforts almost exclusively. Peace and Phillips pleaded guilty Friday, and Phillips signed a statement saying that Vick participated in the killing of eight dogs, some by hanging and drowning.

Furthermore, Vick apparently lied to NFL officials when he met with them to discuss the allegations. The NFL's personal conduct policy for players empowers NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to fine, suspend or impose a lifetime ban on an offending player. Vick also may have violated the league's gambling policy. The Falcons may release Vick, and they could try to force him to refund some of the bonus money in his mammoth contract. Analysts say he has already lost tens of millions of dollars in potential endorsement income.

Unbelieveable toll

As he sat in his living room last week, James Boddie was asked how great a toll this was taking on the Vick and Boddie families. He paused, closed his eyes and said, "Unbelievable."

He opened his eyes, and they looked a bit teary. He told of his grandson leaving him tickets when the Falcons played in Baltimore last season, and using them to take some neighborhood kids to the game.

"Every time I'd see him on TV, people would roar when he came out on the field," Boddie said. "I'd say, `This is not somebody else's grandson. This is my grandson, and people love him. He's taking care of his family and he's doing great things, you know, he's visiting the boys' clubs and hospitals and holding babies and stuff, always doing positive stuff.' ... And then this."

The Washington Post staff writer Adam Kilgore and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.