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When Johnson was arrested at his apartment in Tulsa in May 2004, agents found a calendar that detailed when he fought and bred his dogs. Fights were listed so far back that investigators believe Johnson fought dogs while still in the NFL. When a law enforcement agent asked Johnson if other football players were into the blood sport, "he avoided answering the question," Ward says. "It was like he was saying there were, but he didn't want to be the one to talk about them."
Johnson is one of a handful of athletes who have faced charges for dogfighting or spoken openly of their links to the practice. Former NBA player Qyntel Woods was accused in 2004 of staging fights at his home outside Portland and pleaded guilty to first-degree animal abuse. Former Dallas Cowboy Nate Newton was arrested at a fight in Texas in 1991. (Charges were later dropped.) Former boxer Gerald McClellan would watch tapes of dogs fighting before his own bouts and admitted putting his dog into fights. And former NFL player Tyrone Wheatley praised the spirit of fighting dogs in SI in 2001. But for all those identified, scores of others go unnamed, according to animal control officials and pro athletes interviewed by SI.
"[Fighting dogs] is a fun thing, a hobby, to some [athletes]," says an NFL Pro Bowl running back who asked not to be named. "People are crazy about pit bulls. Guys have these nice, big fancy houses, and there is always a pit bull in the back. And everyone wants to have the biggest, baddest dog on the block."
Certainly most athletes who own pit bulls, a breed that's growing in popularity across the U.S., keep them strictly as pets. "People who don't know anything about pit bulls see one and immediately think people are fighting them," says Sean Bailey, a University of Georgia football player with a breeding operation in Alpharetta, Ga. "I breed blue pit bulls, and the 'gameness' dogfighters talk about has been bred out of them."
Still, HSUS officials, who pay for information that leads to a conviction, say they regularly get tips about athletes' participation in dogfights and pass leads on to local law enforcement. Two weeks ago John Goodwin, the HSUS's animal fighting expert, received a tip that a former NBA player ran a fighting ring in Virginia not far from Vick's property. "We hear about athletes all the time," Goodwin says.
"There's a fine line between having a dog as a macho display and having that animal display those characteristics in a fight setting," says Pacelle, the HSUS president. "Athletes get pulled into the subculture. These are competitive people. They are competitive on the football field and on the basketball court, and they get competitive about their dogs."
Or, as the Pro Bowl running back put it, "Sometimes you just want to see how tough a dog you got."
Kathy strouse will long remember the pit bulls she helped remove from Moonlight Road. Most were short, stocky and ferocious looking, but when she approached them and gave them treats, they were gentle and loving. "Those dogs were so happy, so delighted to have human contact," Strouse says. The animals were split up and sent to shelters around Virginia, the locations undisclosed for fear dogfighters might try to steal them. Eventually the animals will be euthanized. "These dogs can't be adopted," says Strouse. "You don't want dogs like these living next door. The only thought that gives me some comfort is, I would rather have them die while being held by someone who cares about them than in a fighting pit."
She pauses, composes herself and returns to the stack of papers she calls the latest research on the case. "There's so much here, I've barely had time to go through it all," Strouse says, sorting through pages of material she hopes will help reveal the truth of what went on in those blackened buildings on Moonlight Road.