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The Road to Bad Newz

Through his rise and fall, Michael Vick stayed loyal to a tight circle of friends -- homeboys who used him and ultimately sold him out. He's not the first pro athlete to be swallowed up by his old neighborhood

Posted: Tuesday November 20, 2007 11:10AM; Updated: Tuesday November 20, 2007 11:10AM
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Influential Atlantans urged Vick to embrace his new community, but at heart he remained
Influential Atlantans urged Vick to embrace his new community, but at heart he remained "young and country."
Gerald Herbert/AP

By George Dohrmann and Farrell Evans

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.

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