IN AUGUST 2002,Andrew Young, a former ambassador to the United Nations and onetime aide toMartin Luther King Jr., met with Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Themeeting was not scheduled or scripted, and it lasted only a few minutes. Vickwas coming off the field after a training-camp practice at Furman University inGreenville, S.C., and Young pulled him aside.
Like most Atlanta residents that summer, Young, the city's former mayor, wasexcited about Vick's athletic gifts. During the eight games Vick played as arookie in 2001, he had electrified the league and a sagging franchise, raisinghigh hopes for '02, which Vick would validate by leading the Falcons to theirfirst playoff win in four years and making the Pro Bowl. A popular Poweradecommercial broadcast at the time showed Vick throwing a ball out of a stadiumand knocking players off their feet with the velocity of his passes. Live onSundays and in fantastical advertisements, Vick appeared to be an otherworldlytalent.
But Young, as a black member of the Falcons' board of directors and an ordainedminister, noticed things about Vick that fans and advertisers probably missed.He hadn't joined a local church. He didn't show any interest in socializingwith prominent African-Americans from Atlanta who could provide advice onhandling life in the public spotlight. He was "young and country,"Young recalls, and he hung out almost exclusively with friends from hishometown of Newport News, Va. When Vick's rookie season ended, Young noted, heimmediately "jumped on a plane back to Virginia."
This is an article from the Nov. 26, 2007 issue
In their brieftalk, Young told Vick that being a star is a burden and that he needed tosurround himself with smart, trustworthy people. He gave Vick his number andurged him to call. Over the next five years Young attempted to steer him towarda church near Newport News that he hoped Vick would attend.
It is easynow—with Vick having surrendered on Monday to federal authorities in Richmondto begin his incarceration ahead of his Dec. 10 sentencing, when he faces asmuch as 18 months for conspiracy to operate a dogfighting enterprise—to viewYoung's intervention with Vick as unsuccessful. Young reached out to Vick at apivotal moment in Vick's maturation, but "everything I tried failed,"Young says. Vick never embraced the Atlanta community. He didn't visit thechurch Young recommended, and he continued to socialize almost exclusively withfriends connected to the old neighborhood, some of whom would later becomplicit in his crimes. It's also easy to settle on the root cause of Vick'sproblems: He remained "young and country" even as he became one of thebiggest and richest brands in sports.
But shortly afterVick pleaded guilty last August, Young, in an interview with SI, introduced amore complex explanation for Vick's downfall. He was victimized by "ghettoloyalty," Young said, taken down by an obligation he felt to his friendsfrom home. "It's a heady life, being a pro athlete, but it's also a lonelylife," Young said. "And often the only people athletes feel comfortablewith are the guys they grew up with on the streets." Many athletes aretrapped in that situation, according to Young, and it's not entirely theirfault.
It's a difficultpremise to embrace. It suggests that athletes—primarily black athletes frompoor backgrounds—are held captive by a code that requires them to helpneighborhood friends, even to their own detriment, and that therefore they arenot always responsible for their actions. Still, it's a theory gaining tractionamong those who study and work with athletes; they point to severalhigh-profile cases, none bigger than Vick's, to illustrate the problem.
"Sometimesthe cultural influences athletes face aren't being offset by their advisers,their team, the league they play in," says David Cornwell, an Atlanta-basedattorney who has represented Reggie Bush and Gilbert Arenas. "What's left,as we saw with Vick, is a Molotov cocktail."
THERE'S A storyfrom Michael Vick's childhood that seems almost mythical.
Shortly afterVick was born, on June 26, 1980, his father, Michael Boddie, took him into hisarms and carried him outside their apartment. Standing in the yard, he raisedthe naked baby to the starry night sky and told him, "Behold the only thinggreater than yourself." It was a line from Roots, uttered by Omoro upon thebirth of his son Kunta Kinte. Boddie said later that he did it because hewanted Michael to lead a special life.
When Vickexploded upon the college scene at Virginia Tech in the late 1990s, that taleand others from Vick's childhood flowed from sportswriters' laptops as theychronicled his rise from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood to stardom. Readerslearned that Vick had played in the same dirt yard that his father had as aboy, 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 foundshelter from gangs and drugs at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater HamptonRoads. When Vick announced that he was leaving Virginia Tech two years earlyfor the NFL, he did so at the Boys & Girls Club, a nod to the haven and thepeople who had protected him.
Vick's rise fromNewport News's east end to the NFL made for great copy, but his downfall was aneven more compelling story, full of drama, moral questions and a cast oflargely unknown characters. There were C.J. Reamon, the nephew of Vick's highschool football coach, and Quanis Phillips, a high school teammate and Vick'sclosest friend. There was Davon Boddie, Vick's first cousin. There were alsotwo older guys from the neighborhood, Tony Taylor and his cousin Adam (Wink)Harris, and Purnell Peace, another Newport News acquaintance. Boddie wouldinadvertently get the dogfighting investigation rolling when—after his arrestlast April for possession of marijuana with intent to sell—he gave, as his homeaddress, the Surry County house where the kennels were located. And Phillips,Taylor and Peace would all plead guilty in the dogfighting case and agree totestify against Vick, thus all but forcing their friend to enter his own guiltyplea.
"In hisstruggling, formative years, Michael formed a bond with these guys," saysJames (Poo) Johnson, the assistant CEO of the Boys & Girls Club, who hasknown Vick since he was seven. "They grew up together wearing the sameclothes, sharing bologna sandwiches and franks, doing everythingtogether."
Vick often talkedabout wanting to get his family out of Bad Newz, the nickname he gave hishometown (and, later, his kennel and dogfighting ring), but for someone whotalked of escape, he returned often to the old neighborhood. As a student atVirginia Tech, he drove home monthly, lured by the company of his friends."Some of them weren't bad guys," Johnson says, "but they wereopportunists."
Their bigopportunity came when Vick was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NFLdraft and given a contract worth $62 million over six years. (In 2004 he signeda 10-year, $130 million deal that briefly made him the highest-paid player inleague history.) According to a Vick acquaintance, at times eight or moreneighborhood friends would be at Vick's mansion near the Sugarloaf Country Clubin Duluth, Ga., or at the home in Surry County. Not all lived with him, but afew became such regulars that they assumed a wide range of semiofficial jobsand roles. Harris, 35, was Vick's contact person for Nike and his driver inAtlanta, responsible for getting him to appointments and practice on time.Reamon, 33, handled Vick's endorsement deal with Atlanta-based airline AirTranand chauffeured Vick whenever he was in Virginia. Taylor, 34, oversaw the dogkennel and dogfighting operation in Virginia until 2004, when he was succeededby Peace, 35. Phillips, 28, accompanied his close friend almost everywhere. Hehad free use of Vick's luxury cars—a Maybach, a Bentley, an Escalade, aMercedes—and often sported the same jewelry as Vick and similar clothes.
"What peopleneed to understand is that in a low-income community, you are going to alwayshave people looking to get a break by latching onto someone with money,"says Aaron Brooks, the former New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raidersquarterback, who is Vick's second cousin and grew up one row of apartments overin the Ridley Circle projects.
A typical day forVick, according to several acquaintances, included being shuttled by Harris toand from the Falcons' practice facility in Flowery Branch. After practice Vickwould 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'srookie season, when he was 21, but also up through last season, his sixth inthe league. "Brenda [Vick, Michael's mother] used to tell me every time shewould 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 hangingaround all the time, the girls running in and out. So [Brenda] went down thereand cleaned house: 'Everybody just get out! Get out! Get out! You guys are justsucking up my son's money. You're really not doing nothing for him.'"
But when BrendaVick left, the friends quickly returned. Vick became known around the NFL forhis sizable entourage, which accompanied him everywhere. They could be seenspilling out of a massive limo before him or surrounding him as he movedthrough a club, his own Ridley Circle of protection.
Some members ofVick's entourage had checkered pasts. Davon Boddie had his drug arrest, forwhich he received a five-year suspended sentence. Reamon was arrested in 2006for carrying a Glock through security at Newport News Airport. (The case ispending.) Taylor was arrested in 1996 for cocaine possession. (It was dismissedafter a year of good behavior and the completion of a substance-abuseprogram.)
Harris was theonly member of Vick's inner circle willing to talk to SI about his relationshipwith the ex--Falcons star. "I'm here to make a dollar for Mike and a dollarfor me," he said. "I've always been a friend first. Business camesecond. My friendship with him has made me take more interest in hisaffairs."
Vick'sfriendships, however, also seemed to keep him from connecting with teammates.Dan Reeves, Vick's coach in Atlanta during his first three seasons, took notethat Vick didn't bond with other players and warned him about his neighborhoodassociates after two friends were arrested for drug trafficking in Newport Newsin 2004 while driving a car registered to Vick. Karon Riley, a Falconsdefensive end in 2003 and '04, noticed the same and says teammates often foundit difficult to approach Vick. "I remember one day, we were hanging out andhe was real friendly, asking me how I was doing," says Riley. "But thenthe next day, Mike walked past me and didn't even look at me."
Johnson, Vick'smentor at the Boys & Girls Club, watched Vick surround himself with buddiesfrom his old neighborhood and grew worried. "I don't think Michael thoughtabout the ramifications of what he was doing."
I CAN GO throughthe 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 authorof Young, Black, Rich & Famous. "Michael Vick is not a thug. And themajority of black athletes who are lucky enough to make it out of the ghettoare not thugs."
Why then do Vickand other athletes surround themselves with neighborhood associates—evenconvicted criminals—whose activities might threaten their careers? Why didRavens linebacker Ray Lewis obstruct a murder investigation in 2000 in whichhis friends were the primary suspects? Why did Browns running back Jamal Lewisparticipate that same year in a drug deal spearheaded by one of hisneighborhood chums? And why did former NBA player Robert Traylor launder moneyin 2004 for a drug-dealing cousin? Boyd and other experts who have studied theplight of black athletes say there are four primary reasons, all falling underthe umbrella of ghetto loyalty.
•Indebtedness."A lot of times if you grew up in a gang-infested area and you are a goodathlete, you will get a pass [on participating in criminal activity] whereasothers won't," says Jonathan (Spoon) Chaney, a former gang member in LongBeach, Calif., and onetime player in Snoop Dogg's entourage who now coachesyouth 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 youowe us.'"
•Childhood Bonds.Michael Thompson, an offensive lineman for the Falcons in 2000 and '01, grew upin a poor neighborhood in Savannah. He and his mother were physically abused byhis stepfather, and they ended up in a shelter for battered mothers andchildren. 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 intheir bathrooms. We were brothers and we shared everything," Thompson wrotein a letter to SI. "The fact that they were there before the collegescholarship and the pro contract.... I felt I owed it to them."
Shortly afterThompson 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 thembrothers."
•CommunalPressure. "Don't forget where you came from" is a term every athlete toemerge from the ghetto has heard many times. "When my grandmother tells methat, she means to be humble, to remember when you didn't have anything andremember that all that you have could be gone at any time," says GoldenState Warriors guard Baron Davis, who grew up in the Watts section of LosAngeles. "But other people who say it mean, 'Hey, don't forget to take careof me.'"
"In the blackcommunity," says Boyd, "when someone succeeds, there is an assumptionthat 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, andnow you've forgotten us. America is a country based on individuals, but blackpeople were brought to this country as a group. Thus, athletes are constantlyin this position where they are moving between the group dynamic and theindividual dynamic."
•Fear. Sent to acollege where they are unlike all but a small fraction of the population,athletes seek refuge with friends back home, often returning to their oldneighborhood or bringing friends to campus. Drafted into the pros andtransplanted to a new city, they take neighborhood friends along. Possessingmoney for the first time, they fear being taken advantage of.
"When you'retalking about pro athletes, you're talking about people who land in a placethat is the extreme opposite of where they grew up," says Boyd. "To besafe, they surround themselves with what they know. Very qualified people mightbe trying to help them, but they say, 'I don't know you, but I've known thisguy from my old neighborhood since I was five.' Athletes figure that they'rebetter off with the devil they know than the devils they don't know."
Those who knowVick say that he felt a need to help longtime friends like Phillips, whom hebonded with as a child. He also wanted to give opportunities to men like Taylorand 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 incharge 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 suddenriches scared him. When Andrew Young reached out to Vick in 2002, it wasprobably too late. "[Vick] helped build the Atlanta Falcons," Youngsays, "but he never had a chance to build his own intellectual and moralreserves."
There is muchdebate among officials from the NBA and the NFL, the leagues with the highestproportion of black players, over how to help athletes from the inner cityacclimate to the world of professional sports. All agree that athletes oftenspend their high school and college years—the time when most adults make greatleaps socially and mentally—in an athletic cocoon and end up ill-suited tocombat the pressures that lead to ghetto loyalty.
One prominent NFLagent, who asked not to be named, said navigating through athletes'neighborhood friends now takes up so much of his time that he turns awayclients he feels will be too tied to them. And even if an agent gives a clientgood advice, it is often ignored because it comes from someone who is not fromthe client's neighborhood. "I once had Warrick Dunn question some legaladvice I gave him," says Cornwell. "I told him, 'I don't tell you howto tote the rock.' But very few people will talk to athletes that way for fearthat they will get cut off."
The NFL hasguidance programs for its athletes, and issues like the dangers of ghettoloyalty arise in the annual rookie symposiums held shortly after the draft.(After a player's rookie season, however, the responsibility falls to theteam.) Thompson, the former Falcons lineman, played a key role in the NFL'srookie symposium in 2002. He spoke about his troubles navigating the wants ofhis neighborhood friends. Three years later he was in a Georgia prison,sentenced to seven years for attempted robbery. In the letter mailed from theWheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, Ga., Thompson was responding to anumber of questions, among them, What advice would you give to young athletesfrom similar backgrounds as yours? He answered, "Please don't allow yourneighborhood to swallow you."
BARON DAVIS knowsexactly how he avoided being swallowed by his neighborhood. In the seventhgrade, on the recommendation on an AAU basketball coach, he was recruited tothe Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, where hisschoolmates included actress Kate Hudson and other children of privilege."I was this kid begging other kids for 50 cents, but I was also learningwhat it was like to be around different people and was exposed to newthings," Davis says. "I learned the world was bigger than where I grewup, that there were these people I could trust, people at Crossroads and thenat UCLA who wanted to see me do well."
It changed how heviewed friendship and his responsibility to the people of Watts, and how hecould best help them.
"I'll givethem 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 keepshowing improvement, I'll keep helping them. Money is a way to help, butopportunity is better than money."
Davis's innercircle consists of two childhood friends, Tremaine (Terminator) Ross and Kevin(Bean) Bradley; two friends from Crossroads, Chad Gordon and Cash Warren; andRico Hines, a former teammate from UCLA. Bradley plays professional basketballin Iran; Gordon and Warren work for Davis's production company, VersoEntertainment; and Hines is an athletic-development assistant with theWarriors, a job that Davis helped him get.
Ross is the onlyone 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 livedwith him there. "It was his rookie year, and he needed that person he couldtrust," says Ross. "I kept him organized and focused, but we were notkids down there. I was showing him loyalty, but this was a grown-uprelationship."
The difference inhis relationship with Ross, Davis says, and that of many athletes and theirneighborhood friends is that "Term never asked for one penny."
Davis had alwaysencouraged Ross to get into music production, and they had a recording studiobuilt in New Orleans after the Hornets moved there in 2002. When Davis wastraded to Golden State, in '05, Ross moved back to Los Angeles, and Davisintroduced him to several music industry executives. He now has a stable ofyoung artists such as YaBoy, a Bay Area rapper. "Term moved over to theWestside [of Los Angeles], and it was hard for him. He was skeptical ofeveryone. Even Rico and Cash, he didn't trust them," Davis says. "But Iencouraged him, and he took this leap and he ran with it. Now he has developedhis own relationships and is making a living in the music business."
"I'm twoyears older than Baron," Ross says, "but he teaches me. He goes out andlearns the business side from people, and then I learn it from him. I neverthought I would be involved in the corporate side of anything. He gave me thepower, the opportunity, to run a record label."
Davis stillreturns to his neighborhood, but only to visit his grandmother. He has peoplehe keeps in touch with—the manager of a Boys & Girls Club, an elementaryschool teacher—and he donates to organizations he feels are doing good work inthe area, but he gives no handouts.
"I feelobligated to my grandmother, and I feel obligated to empower people who aretrying to impact the neighborhood in a positive way, but I don't feel obligatedto individuals," Davis says. "[Athletes] who are always back in thehood, trying to keep it real, they are wasting time."
Davis's long-termplan for his friends is a bit quixotic—hokey, even. He envisions them allowning homes in the same gated community, raising their kids together. Hisfriends would all have their own jobs; whether he helped them get those jobs ornot wouldn't matter. "They might not all be millionaires, but there isnothing wrong with making $70,000 or $80,000 a year."
It is not hard toimagine that Vick wanted something similar for his friends. But either hedidn't know how to get them to that end or they weren't willing to settle forthe 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, theneighborhood friend who used to drive Vick around Atlanta, suggests as much inresponse to a question about what he and the rest of Vick's Newport News palswill do now that Vick is no longer drawing an NFL paycheck and may be spendingtime in jail.
"We're notgoing 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 ofcollege to replace Mike."
Analysis of the impending Vick sentencing from sportslaw expert Michael McCann.
ONLY AT SI.COM