IRVING, Texas – On Monday, when Michael Vick(notes) is expected to be released from federal custody, he'll be free to get on with his life and pursue a return to professional football. The first and most important step will be convincing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he's a changed man.
Goodell, who suspended Vick indefinitely in August 2007 after he pled guilty to financing a dogfighting conspiracy, has said the disgraced former Atlanta Falcons quarterback won't be reinstated unless he shows genuine remorse and demonstrates that he's prepared to live a different life.
I can close my eyes and envision what Vick's first conversation with the commissioner will be like, because I experienced something very similar 11 years ago. In April of 1998 I traveled to Cooper, Texas, a small town in the northeast part of the state, to spend some time with exiled NFL running back Byron (Bam) Morris, who'd just completed a 90-day stay in the Rockwall County Detention Center for probation violations.
Morris, one of the more fun-loving and charming pro football players I'd ever covered, had been an emerging star for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he'd blown it less than two months after a standout performance in Super Bowl XXX. Pulled over by a patrol car for swerving, Morris had five pounds of marijuana in his trunk, which led to his release by the Steelers and, ultimately, his short stay at Rockwall.
During my daylong visit to Cooper a few days after Morris' release, he repeatedly looked me in the eye and convinced me he'd been scared straight, and I bought it like a chump.
In an article that appeared in the following week's Sports Illustrated, Morris pronounced himself a new, enlightened person, one who carried around a jail-cell key as a reminder of where his next mistake would lead. "I'd rather fight Mike Tyson than go to jail, even for another 90 days," Morris had told me. "I'd rather get knocked out by Tyson, get my ear bit off, whatever."
He spoke of a renewed love for his wife, Stephanie, and insisted as he held her hand, "We've just withdrawn from society. It's just us and our family now."
A year later Morris was divorced, largely because of his infidelities and insatiable appetite for drugs (including ecstasy and cocaine), alcohol and, in his words, being the perpetual life of the party. Now with the Kansas City Chiefs, he had also been involved in a marijuana-dealing transaction. After becoming ensnared in a federal investigation into car theft and marijuana smuggling involving then-teammate Tamarick Vanover, Morris would soon be headed back to jail, ultimately doing nearly five years of time.
I felt badly for him, but I was also angry for having been so conspicuously gullible.
In August of 2000 Morris pled guilty to two counts of federal drug trafficking and in June of '01 was sentenced to 30 months in prison, 15 of which he'd already served. In September of '01 a Texas judge found him guilty of violating his parole and sentenced him to 10 years in a state prison. He got out early, in July of 2004, and has since stayed out of trouble.
Finally, it seems, Bam really is a changed man. He stayed clean during the entire course of his probation and says he seldom drinks now, and he spends most of his nights at home with his third wife, Samar, who owns a hair salon. In addition to helping at the salon, Morris, for the past year, has been working with San Francisco Bay Area-based writer Vittorio Tafur on a book about his life, "Tough Yards," which he believes can inspire children and young athletes not to make the same mistakes. Morris hopes to open a youth center in Cooper and to counsel kids and NFL players about the perils of drug use and poor choices.
Bam and I have talked on the phone a few times since he got out, and last month I flew to Dallas to pay him a visit. At 37, he's still a jovial man with an engaging personality, yet it was precisely because of those traits that he had so much success conning me after his first stint behind bars.
One of the first questions I asked him during a long meal at a Cajun restaurant was about that day we'd spent in Cooper 11 years earlier.
Were you blatantly lying to me, or did you actually believe that crap you were telling me that day?
"Did I believe it?" he repeated. "I think I was believing it at the time – well, no, not really. I think I was just saying that [expletive] 'cause it sounded good. That's just the way I was back then. As a player, I would say stuff in meetings 'cause it was what I thought the coaches wanted to hear. I was doing the same thing with you."
I'm obviously not an authority on whether Morris was being 100 percent sincere this time around, but I can tell you that the man is introspective, self-critical and very realistic about his weaknesses. It wasn't until he truly bottomed out that was able to do the hard work required to become a better person and commit himself to stop repeating the same mistakes that derailed his career and life.
It's a process he hopes Vick, too, was able to initiate during the quarterback's 19-month term at a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Given that Vick, 29, is an unemployed convicted felon who has filed for bankruptcy after squandering tens of millions of dollars, Morris believes there is ample impetus for change. He's rooting for Vick to get another chance at playing in the NFL – and not to throw it away, as he did.
Morris wrote to Vick during the quarterback's stay at Leavenworth – he reached out through Chiefs player development director Lamonte Winston, whose brother, Kevin, has a similar role with the Falcons – and encouraged him to reevaluate his priorities and eliminate the negative influences in his life.
"It's time to focus on you," Morris wrote. "Keep your head up, and don't let anything distract you from that focus."
Though their respective cases are obviously different, Morris is confident that Vick will come to some of the same realizations that he experienced while incarcerated. "I hope Mike sees that when you go to prison, you really have no true friends," Morris says. "I'll bet his mom, his brothers and his fiancée have his back. The same people he spent thousands of dollars on, they probably were nowhere in his corner. They're what I call male groupies. Yeah, he was doing things he shouldn't have been doing, but these dudes never told him to stop."
Looking back, Morris understands why he made so many bad decisions and continually failed to modify his behavior. Though he began using drugs as early as the seventh grade and was perpetually skirting the rules, Morris got away with his transgressions because of his athletic prowess.
"My whole life people would get me out of trouble," he says. "At [Texas] Tech I'd walk around flexing, saying, 'I can get out of anything.' And I could. Football was easy for me, and it wasn't what I cared about the most. The only thing that mattered to me was being the life of the party.
"In jail, I knew that had to stop. I was polite to people, but I didn't make friends. I thought, 'Being everybody's friend – that was what got me in here in the first place. To hell with that.' "
Though Morris, during our discussion in '98, described his first jail stint as terrifying, he now scoffs at that portrayal. "It was just a jail," he says. "It was nothing scary. I was a cook."
He speaks similarly about his stay in federal prison, which he described as "Club Fed." With luxuries such as air-conditioning and an illicitly purchased remote control for a television screen he could see from his cell, Morris says, "I could chill in my bed and watch Cinemax all night if I wanted."
It wasn't until Morris began serving his term at Huntsville (Texas) State Prison that he began to take an honest look at his situation. It didn't happen instantly. Morris came in surly, overweight and still in denial about the source of his predicament. At one point, because of behavioral transgressions, he spent 35 days in isolation. "I was locked down for 23 hours a day," he recalls. Soon thereafter, he was put on a work detail that added new meaning to the term "cooped up."
"I was picking up chicken eggs, taking cut-off chicken heads to the furnace, picking up chicken [expletive] when it was hotter than hell," he recalls. "It was 100-plus degrees in my cell, with rats and roaches running around, and [prisoners] were literally dropping dead. I was like, 'Man, they're trying to make me go crazy.' And I could have.
"I could've done like most people in there and just give up and take [black-market] psych medicine and check out. I saw so many people just lose themselves, just walking around and going crazy."
Ultimately, Morris went the other way. He got his body in shape and his mind right, reading self-help books like Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and taking an honest assessment of his flaws.
"There are two things in prison you can learn – how to become a better criminal, or how to turn yourself around," he says. "I could've said, '[Expletive] it, I'm gonna be a number for the rest of my life' and just be in and out of jail.' I decided I didn't want that.
"I said to myself, 'I [expletive] up. I'm gonna have to do this time. All my life, everybody got me out of everything, but can't nobody get me out of this jam. This one I'm gonna have to do myself.' And I finally got to focus on me. I would be up till 3 or 4 a.m. thinking about some of the choices I've made … like, 'Damn, dude, what was you thinking?' "
Morris hopes that Vick asked himself the same question and came to similar conclusions about how he must change his ways.
"I feel like Mike has hit rock bottom," Morris says, "and I feel like when somebody brings him in [to play], he's gonna give it is his full attention. His talent is so superb, and he just needs to prepare, stay focused and apply himself – and to keep good people around him."
Toward the end of his stay at Huntsville, Morris wrote a handwritten letter to then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, apologizing "for my disrespect to you and the National Football League." From his vantage point, Morris thinks it's likely that Vick has been similarly humbled.
"To me, Mike already showed a lot of remorse," Morris says. "I think he really is sorry for what he's done. I think when [Goodell] talks about remorse, it's more that he's telling him, 'The ball is in your court. You get another chance. If you do everything you say you're gonna do, we'll be fine. If not, you won't get that chance.' "
As someone who believes in second chances, I'm rooting for Goodell to extend one – and for Vick to prove that he has changed for the better and channeled his energy toward positive pursuits, as Morris seemingly has at long last.
On the other hand, I know what it's like to be told what I want to hear, to buy it, and to end up looking ridiculous. In that sense, I don't envy Goodell's position one bit.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Brandon Marshall(notes) will report to training camp, but something nasty will go down between him and the Denver Broncos before the end of September. … After completing his offseason conditioning routine, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) will not be offered roles in any adult-cinema productions. … Chad Ochocinco – as predicted by Chad Ochocinco – will have a big year in 2009.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Back in the mid-90s, when I was getting banned from the Oakland Raiders' locker room on a semi-regular basis, I totally could have predicted that VeryFakeAlDavis would be following RealMikeSilver on something called Twitter.
3. It's totally plausible that "E," one of the most insufferable characters in HBO original-series history, would make that basket from a reclining position in the "Entourage" season premiere.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was the emblem of calm Thursday as he stood on the driving range of the Edgewood Tahoe golf course in Lake Tahoe, Nev., where he'll be competing in the American Century Championship celebrity tournament for the first time. Yet how jumpy do you think Whisenhunt might be feeling had quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) signed with the San Francisco 49ers last March? Remember, after the free-agent passer grew frustrated by negotiations with the Cards, the 49ers sent a private plane to Arizona and whisked Warner and his wife, Brenda, for a visit that theoretically could have ended with a signed contract. Was Whisenhunt sweating the possibility that last year's playoff hero could end up with a division rival? Damn right he was. "The logical part of me, the engineer, wasn't really worried," Whisenhunt said Thursday. "I thought, Why would he go there? Why would he leave this offense with those receivers [Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and Anquan Boldin(notes)] to play for that team? But the other part of me? Yeah, I was definitely stressed out, because any time someone visits another team and is in their building, it's scary. Put it this way: I was holding my breath."
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Steve McNair(notes), a terrific football player whose toughness and leadership skills left an indelible image that will endure long after his brutal death. I had the pleasure of covering some of McNair's most memorable games, and I once had a long discussion with his wife, Mechelle, for a feature about his proclivity for playing through pain. My thoughts and prayers go out to Mechelle and to Steve's four sons, and I wish his life hadn't ended under such miserable circumstances. It has been awhile since the last Gameface, and I'm also honoring the memory of my friend Ricky Sandoval, the former Lions and 49ers security director who passed away earlier this month. Like McNair, Big Rick was as tough as they come. He fought off pancreatic cancer for more than three years – about six times longer than doctors expected he could – and leaves behind a loving wife, Gael, who loved and cared for him like a champion.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
A blessedly blue-and-gold summer continued as swimmers Dana Vollmer (100 free) and Nathan Adrian (50 free, 100 free) captured titles at the USA National Championships, and hoopsters Alexis Grey-Lawson (part of USA's gold-medal team) and Max Zhang shined at the World University Games. Zhang's efforts for China were particularly enlightening: The 7-3 center, who barely played as a Cal freshman, averaged 18 points and a tournament-leading 17.3 rebounds and 5.6 blocks in six games in Belgrade, Serbia. Then again, some Golden Bears fans already knew that Zhang had skills.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
In the latest example of our culture's collective lack of composure in the presence of celebrity, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) revealed in an interview with The Daily Californian that he regularly receives photo albums and testimonials from parents urging him to date their daughters. (So far, Rodgers has managed to resist the overtures, even in those cases in which one of the young women photographed is highly attractive. "You've got to be careful with the hot ones," he said Thursday from the driving range at the American Century Championship. "Some of the guys on the team were swapping out photos, writing fake letters and placing them in people's lockers.") Charming, to be sure, and worthy of a chorus of imaginary Eddie Vedders, to the tune of Pearl Jam's "Daughter."
Alone … listless … breakfast table full of scrambled eggs with cheese curds
Young girl … no boyfriends … looking for some male attention
The mother dolls her up and snaps a glamour photo
Tries to make her hot
The dad comes home and checks her out
Hudson Jeans, tight as hell … He tells A-Rod
Please date my daughter
You're fit to
The picture book will entice you
Come fetch my daughter
You're fit to
The letter says she's a nice girl
Come get her
Her ringless hand has got us down
You can … lift us up
Please date my daughter
You're fit to
The picture book will entice you
Deflower my daughter
You're fit to be
The man who takes her to Titletown
Just call me …
The shades go down
The shades go, go, go …