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.
"In his struggling, formative years, Michael formed a bond with these guys," says James (Poo) Johnson, the assistant CEO of the Boys & Girls Club, who has known Vick since he was seven. "They grew up together wearing the same clothes, sharing bologna sandwiches and franks, doing everything together."
Vick often talked about wanting to get his family out of Bad Newz, the nickname he gave his hometown (and, later, his kennel and dogfighting ring), but for someone who talked of escape, he returned often to the old neighborhood. As a student at Virginia Tech, he drove home monthly, lured by the company of his friends. "Some of them weren't bad guys," Johnson says, "but they were opportunists."
Their big opportunity came when Vick was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NFL draft and given a contract worth $62 million over six years. (In 2004 he signed a 10-year, $130 million deal that briefly made him the highest-paid player in league history.) According to a Vick acquaintance, at times eight or more neighborhood friends would be at Vick's mansion near the Sugarloaf Country Club in Duluth, Ga., or at the home in Surry County. Not all lived with him, but a few became such regulars that they assumed a wide range of semiofficial jobs and roles. Harris, 35, was Vick's contact person for Nike and his driver in Atlanta, responsible for getting him to appointments and practice on time. Reamon, 33, handled Vick's endorsement deal with Atlanta-based airline AirTran and chauffeured Vick whenever he was in Virginia. Taylor, 34, oversaw the dog kennel and dogfighting operation in Virginia until 2004, when he was succeeded by Peace, 35. Phillips, 28, accompanied his close friend almost everywhere. He had free use of Vick's luxury cars -- a Maybach, a Bentley, an Escalade, a Mercedes -- and often sported the same jewelry as Vick and similar clothes.
"What people need to understand is that in a low-income community, you are going to always have people looking to get a break by latching onto someone with money," says Aaron Brooks, the former New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders quarterback, who is Vick's second cousin and grew up one row of apartments over in the Ridley Circle projects.
A typical day for Vick, according to several acquaintances, included being shuttled by Harris to and from the Falcons' practice facility in Flowery Branch. After practice Vick would engage his friends in marathon sessions of Madden NFL on PlayStation, some lasting five hours or more. It was a routine followed not just in Vick's rookie season, when he was 21, but also up through last season, his sixth in the league. "Brenda [Vick, Michael's mother] 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, Vick's grandfather, told The Washington Post last August. "So he's got a bunch of guys hanging around all the time, the girls running in and out. So [Brenda] 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.' "
But when Brenda Vick left, the friends quickly returned. Vick became known around the NFL for his sizable entourage, which accompanied him everywhere. They could be seen spilling out of a massive limo before him or surrounding him as he moved through a club, his own Ridley Circle of protection.
Some members of Vick's entourage had checkered pasts. Davon Boddie had his drug arrest, for which he received a five-year suspended sentence. Reamon was arrested in 2006 for carrying a Glock through security at Newport News Airport. (The case is pending.) Taylor was arrested in 1996 for cocaine possession. (It was dismissed after a year of good behavior and the completion of a substance-abuse program.)
Harris was the only member of Vick's inner circle willing to talk to SI about his relationship with the ex-Falcons star. "I'm here to make a dollar for Mike and a dollar for me," he said. "I've always been a friend first. Business came second. My friendship with him has made me take more interest in his affairs."
Vick's friendships, however, also seemed to keep him from connecting with teammates. Dan Reeves, Vick's coach in Atlanta during his first three seasons, took note that Vick didn't bond with other players and warned him about his neighborhood associates after two friends were arrested for drug trafficking in Newport News in 2004 while driving a car registered to Vick. Karon Riley, a Falcons defensive end in 2003 and '04, noticed the same and says teammates often found it difficult to approach Vick. "I remember one day, we were hanging out and he was real friendly, asking me how I was doing," says Riley. "But then the next day, Mike walked past me and didn't even look at me."
Johnson, Vick's mentor at the Boys & Girls Club, watched Vick surround himself with buddies from his old neighborhood and grew worried. "I don't think Michael thought about the ramifications of what he was doing."
I can go through the NFL and show you thugs. I can go through the NBA and show you thugs," says Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at USC and the author of Young, Black, Rich & Famous. "Michael Vick is not a thug. And the majority of black athletes who are lucky enough to make it out of the ghetto are not thugs."
Why then do Vick and other athletes surround themselves with neighborhood associates -- even convicted criminals -- whose activities might threaten their careers? Why did Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis obstruct a murder investigation in 2000 in which his friends were the primary suspects? Why did Browns running back Jamal Lewis participate that same year in a drug deal spearheaded by one of his neighborhood chums? And why did former NBA player Robert Traylor launder money in 2004 for a drug-dealing cousin? Boyd and other experts who have studied the plight of black athletes say there are four primary reasons, all falling under the umbrella of ghetto loyalty.
• Indebtedness. "A lot of times if you grew up in a gang-infested area and you are a good athlete, you will get a pass [on participating in criminal activity] whereas others won't," says Jonathan (Spoon) Chaney, a former gang member in Long Beach, Calif., and onetime player in Snoop Dogg's entourage who now coaches youth basketball in Los Angeles. "But that comes with a price. Athletes, when they make it [to the pros], people say, 'We gave you a pass and now you owe us.' "
• Childhood Bonds. Michael Thompson, an offensive lineman for the Falcons in 2000 and '01, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Savannah. He and his mother were physically abused by his stepfather, and they ended up in a shelter for battered mothers and children. At times the only people he felt he could trust were his friends. "When I was hungry, I ate at their houses, or I would take a shower in their bathrooms. We were brothers and we shared everything," Thompson wrote in a letter to SI. "The fact that they were there before the college scholarship and the pro contract.... I felt I owed it to them."
Shortly after Thompson was drafted, a friend was murdered in Savannah. "[My friends] wanted me to come home and ride for some get-back, but I couldn't," Thompson wrote. "Because of that, they fell out with me for a long time, even to the point of threatening me with violence. But I still considered them brothers."
• Communal Pressure. "Don't forget where you came from" is a term every athlete to emerge from the ghetto has heard many times. "When my grandmother tells me that, she means to be humble, to remember when you didn't have anything and remember that all that you have could be gone at any time," says Golden State Warriors guard Baron Davis, who grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. "But other people who say it mean, 'Hey, don't forget to take care of me.' "
"In the black community," says Boyd, "when someone succeeds, there is an assumption that they are going to go off and forget where they came from. Look at O.J. Simpson, the poster child for this. You have money, you are on television, and now you've forgotten us. America is a country based on individuals, but black people were brought to this country as a group. Thus, athletes are constantly in this position where they are moving between the group dynamic and the individual dynamic."
• Fear. Sent to a college where they are unlike all but a small fraction of the population, athletes seek refuge with friends back home, often returning to their old neighborhood or bringing friends to campus. Drafted into the pros and transplanted to a new city, they take neighborhood friends along. Possessing money for the first time, they fear being taken advantage of.
"When you're talking about pro athletes, you're talking about people who land in a place that is the extreme opposite of where they grew up," says Boyd. "To be safe, they surround themselves with what they know. Very qualified people might be trying to help them, but they say, 'I don't know you, but I've known this guy from my old neighborhood since I was five.' Athletes figure that they're better off with the devil they know than the devils they don't know."
Those who know Vick say that he felt a need to help longtime friends like Phillips, whom he bonded with as a child. He also wanted to give opportunities to men like Taylor and Peace, who had shared his childhood interests (video games, dogs, fishing, music) and would remind him not to forget where he came from. Putting them in charge of Bad Newz Kennels was one way (albeit a poorly chosen one) to do that. Most of all, those who know Vick say, the newness of Atlanta and his sudden riches scared him. When Andrew Young reached out to Vick in 2002, it was probably too late. "[Vick] helped build the Atlanta Falcons," Young says, "but he never had a chance to build his own intellectual and moral reserves."
There is much debate among officials from the NBA and the NFL, the leagues with the highest proportion of black players, over how to help athletes from the inner city acclimate to the world of professional sports. All agree that athletes often spend their high school and college years -- the time when most adults make great leaps socially and mentally -- in an athletic cocoon and end up ill-suited to combat the pressures that lead to ghetto loyalty.
One prominent NFL agent, who asked not to be named, said navigating through athletes' neighborhood friends now takes up so much of his time that he turns away clients he feels will be too tied to them. And even if an agent gives a client good advice, it is often ignored because it comes from someone who is not from the client's neighborhood. "I once had Warrick Dunn question some legal advice I gave him," says Cornwell. "I told him, 'I don't tell you how to tote the rock.' But very few people will talk to athletes that way for fear that they will get cut off."
The NFL has guidance programs for its athletes, and issues like the dangers of ghetto loyalty arise in the annual rookie symposiums held shortly after the draft. (After a player's rookie season, however, the responsibility falls to the team.) Thompson, the former Falcons lineman, played a key role in the NFL's rookie symposium in 2002. He spoke about his troubles navigating the wants of his neighborhood friends. Three years later he was in a Georgia prison, sentenced to seven years for attempted robbery. In the letter mailed from the Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, Ga., Thompson was responding to a number of questions, among them, What advice would you give to young athletes from similar backgrounds as yours? He answered, "Please don't allow your neighborhood to swallow you."
Baron Davis knows exactly how he avoided being swallowed by his neighborhood. In the seventh grade, on the recommendation on an AAU basketball coach, he was recruited to the Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, where his schoolmates included actress Kate Hudson and other children of privilege. "I was this kid begging other kids for 50 cents, but I was also learning what it was like to be around different people and was exposed to new things," Davis says. "I learned the world was bigger than where I grew up, that there were these people I could trust, people at Crossroads and then at UCLA who wanted to see me do well."
It changed how he viewed friendship and his responsibility to the people of Watts, and how he could best help them.
"I'll give them an opportunity," Davis says. "I'll invest in education for them, or if they are looking to get into some trade, I'll help them. If they keep showing improvement, I'll keep helping them. Money is a way to help, but opportunity is better than money."
Davis's inner circle consists of two childhood friends, Tremaine (Terminator) Ross and Kevin (Bean) Bradley; two friends from Crossroads, Chad Gordon and Cash Warren; and Rico Hines, a former teammate from UCLA. Bradley plays professional basketball in Iran; Gordon and Warren work for Davis's production company, Verso Entertainment; and Hines is an athletic-development assistant with the Warriors, a job that Davis helped him get.
Ross is the only one of the friends who could be an example of Davis's showing ghetto loyalty. Ross moved to Charlotte when Davis was drafted by the Hornets in 1999 and lived with him there. "It was his rookie year, and he needed that person he could trust," says Ross. "I kept him organized and focused, but we were not kids down there. I was showing him loyalty, but this was a grown-up relationship."
The difference in his relationship with Ross, Davis says, and that of many athletes and their neighborhood friends is that "Term never asked for one penny."
Davis had always encouraged Ross to get into music production, and they had a recording studio built in New Orleans after the Hornets moved there in 2002. When Davis was traded to Golden State, in '05, Ross moved back to Los Angeles, and Davis introduced him to several music industry executives. He now has a stable of young artists such as YaBoy, a Bay Area rapper. "Term moved over to the Westside [of Los Angeles], and it was hard for him. He was skeptical of everyone. Even Rico and Cash, he didn't trust them," Davis says. "But I encouraged him, and he took this leap and he ran with it. Now he has developed his own relationships and is making a living in the music business."
"I'm two years older than Baron," Ross says, "but he teaches me. He goes out and learns the business side from people, and then I learn it from him. I never thought I would be involved in the corporate side of anything. He gave me the power, the opportunity, to run a record label."
Davis still returns to his neighborhood, but only to visit his grandmother. He has people he keeps in touch with -- the manager of a Boys & Girls Club, an elementary school teacher -- and he donates to organizations he feels are doing good work in the area, but he gives no handouts.
"I feel obligated to my grandmother, and I feel obligated to empower people who are trying to impact the neighborhood in a positive way, but I don't feel obligated to individuals," Davis says. "[Athletes] who are always back in the hood, trying to keep it real, they are wasting time."
Davis's long-term plan for his friends is a bit quixotic -- hokey, even. He envisions them all owning homes in the same gated community, raising their kids together. His friends would all have their own jobs; whether he helped them get those jobs or not wouldn't matter. "They might not all be millionaires, but there is nothing wrong with making $70,000 or $80,000 a year."
It is not hard to imagine that Vick wanted something similar for his friends. But either he didn't know how to get them to that end or they weren't willing to settle for the opportunities that he afforded them. If and when Vick returns to football, it seems likely that his dilemma will remain the same. Adam (Wink) Harris, the neighborhood friend who used to drive Vick around Atlanta, suggests as much in response to a question about what he and the rest of Vick's Newport News pals will do now that Vick is no longer drawing an NFL paycheck and may be spending time in jail.
"We're not going anywhere," Harris says. "When it's time for Mike to sign again, we'll be there. It's not like there are a lot of great players coming out of college to replace Mike."