Michael Vick Visits Avon Park CI by Peter King Sports Illustrated

Posted: March 27, 2011 in News and politics


AVON PARK, Fla. — I got a good view into Michael Vick’s world over the weekend, visiting a Florida prison with Tony Dungy and another one of our NBC Football Night in America colleagues, Dan Patrick. (Dungy invited us to come along to see the prison ministry group he’s become so involved with.) It was a good time to see Dungy and his friends at work, and to see how Vick is progressing in turning his life around. Can he really overcome the stigma of masterminding the dogfighting ring the way he did, causing him to spend 19 months of his life in prison?

The signs have been good. “I want to be an instrument of change,” he told about 700 prisoners at the Avon Park Correctional Institute, 90 minutes south of Orlando. And he was terrific in his five hours here, signing autographs, talking to two large groups of prisoners and then talking to men in smaller groups informally. He also spoke to eight men in solitary confinement.

I can tell you from being in the solitary cellblock, with the tiny cells and the knowledge that these men will leave these cells for only three hours each week … the depression was palpable. Vick, who had been in cells like these before, got right up to the bars, stuck his hand through them and tried to tell the men their lives aren’t over.

So I saw him doing the right thing, and he’s been doing the right thing in Philadelphia. Those who monitor Vick, including Dungy and commissioner Roger Goodell, think he’s doing well.

I’ll tell you what concerns me: the adulation and the nonstop attention. That contributed to Vick thinking before his conviction he could live by different rules than the rest of the planet, and the adulation hasn’t stopped. He was swarmed in the morning by men desperately happy to see him. In the evening, when he went with Dungy and the former coach’s wife, Lauren, to a fundraising banquet for the Abe Brown Ministries, one of Dungy’s favorite causes, a constant procession of people to Vick’s seat in the crowd made it hard for him to eat — and he finally gave up trying to do that.

At the end of the night, Dungy and Vick had to disappoint scores of people by not signing or posing for photos with every last one. “This is not just today,” Vick said. “It’s every day.”

The people were nice, to be sure, and well-meaning. But we saw what happened to Vick when the daily treatment of him like Michael Jordan in the public was combined with having money. And if he keeps playing football like he played in his reborn 2010 season, he’s going to have money again, even after he takes care of his debts from bankruptcy court. Lots of money.

He appears to be on his way to changing his life. But time will tell if the change can stick. I just know if I were being told every day how wonderful I am — not once, but 300 times — my wife telling me to take the recycling out might fall on deaf ears.

Driving back from dinner Friday night, Dungy, looking to make a slight adjustment, came to an intersection with a U-turn prohibition. He took a left into a parking lot, turned around, and got back on the street going the right way.

“That’s the kind of thing I used to just say, ‘I don’t see a cop, I’m doing the U-turn,’ ” Vick said. “That happens now, I’m wrong, I get picked up, and I’m on the front page. It’s not a big deal, but if I do it, it is. I understand. That’s OK. To alleviate any chance of a problem, I’ve always got to do the right thing now. But it’s a good thing. I’ve got to hold myself accountable in everything I do.”

Back to Avon Park. Vick brought his message to about 700 prisoners, to loud applause. “I can tell them the theoretical,” Dungy said on the ride to Avon Park. “Mike can tell them what it’s really like, and how to use this time in their life to prepare for the world again.”

When Vick arrived, he looked at the gleaming wire and the sprawling white-bricked complex of cellblocks. “Don’t look like Leavenworth,” he said. “It’s nicer.”

Most of the men wanted to talk to him about football, and he did a lot of that. But when Dungy got him on stage in the courtyard, following some rousing spiritual songs by the volunteers from Tampa, he was intent on delivering a message, with Vick’s help. Dungy has been doing this for 15 years, going to prisons several times a year. It started by following the lead of the late Abe Brown, a high school football coach in Tampa who saw the crushing cycle of imprisonment badly affecting men from Tampa Bay.

In the crowd at Avon Park, Dungy was surprised — but not shocked, because nothing shocks him about crime anymore — to see one of his son Eric’s classmates from Plant High in the crowd. “When I started to come to prisons [with Abe Brown],” said Dungy, “I was so surprised. I thought it’d be all these older guys. But they’re so young, most of them. They made one mistake, in many cases, and it can ruin their lives. We try to come here and just give them hope that their lives aren’t over, that they can take control of their lives and rebound.”

Vick had been a little tight Friday night. “I’m nervous about going,” he said, “but this time, I get to leave at the end of the day.” When Vick strode into the courtyard to meet the men, he wore AVON PARK VISITORS BADGE 307; the inmates wore their prison IDs clipped to the front of their prison-issued blue uniforms. In the informal chatting and signing, much of the talk was football. “You gonna learn to slide now?” one 25ish inmate asked.

“No. No,” Vick said. “Not how I play. In 20 years, I’ll look back at my career and say, ‘I never learned to slide.’ ”

“Need you on the Giants!” another inmate shouted.

“Nope,” he said. “Eli’s team.”

When Dungy faced the prisoners Saturday morning, he used his guest from Philadelphia as a beacon.

“I have a lot of friends in the National Football League,” Dungy said from a podium, with the flags of Florida and the United States bookending him. “And a lot of them have done great things. But I don’t have a friend that I’m more proud of than Michael Vick.”

Vick liked the trip more than he thought he would. “It was therapeutic for me,” he said. “I got so much out of it.”

Dungy’s fond of saying you never know how many people you’re going to influence on trips like this, and if it’s only one, you’ve had a worthwhile day. You never know which one. One day, that would be a fan letter Vick would like to get.

PHOTO GALLERY: Shots from Vick’s return to prison

(More of my trip with Dungy and Vick can be read in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated.)

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