RICHMOND, Va. – In front of the one man who really matters, Michael Vick stood straight and strong, hands at his side, and after promising to tell Judge Henry H. Hudson "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help (me) God," admitted he was guilty.
In the elegant wood-paneled room 339 of the federal courthouse here, Vick put words to the autographs he signed on documents admitting his role in a rural Virginia dogfighting ring. Afterward, he hugged family members, including a weeping, pregnant woman identified as his fiancée, and shed a small tear himself.
An hour later, in front of the rest of America at a quickly assembled media conference at the Omni Hotel, Vick looked shaken and anything but strong. He barely could make eye contact, nearly whispering as he apologized for his shameful conduct.
"I don't know how to say what I want to say," he said. "What I did was very immature. I take full responsibility. For not one second do I sit here and point a finger at anyone else.
"Dogfighting is a terrible thing."
They were two dramatic scenes on one long, hot morning Monday, the first day of the rest of Michael Vick's life.
He's a convict now. Gone is his $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, his numerous big-money endorsement deals and, perhaps worst of all, his own good name. No matter his contrition, he forever will be a pariah in some circles, such as the animal rights advocates who lined the street, holding signs advocating Vick's own torture and murder.
A sizable and vocal crowd that showed support for him could only begin to ease the fears of a federal prison sentence that could stretch from the prosecution's suggested 12 to 18 months up to the five-year maximum if the judge so decides.
"I am not bound by that part of the plea agreement; you will not know for sure," Hudson told Vick before setting a Dec. 10 sentencing date. He promised "an adequate but not longer than necessary" sentence.
Vick said he understood.
Convincing Hudson to keep it short is the challenge ahead for Vick and his legal team, who will make the case for leniency in December. "We hope Judge Hudson will see the real Michael Vick," attorney Billy Martin said. "What we have seen is an aberration."
There are no more questions of guilt now, just of justice.
Can something that took place over the course of five years really be called an "aberration"?
Is there really any sense in throwing away the key on Vick, who would appear a highly unlikely repeat offender?
Was his press conference performance just a pathetic attempt by a man sorry that he got caught, or someone who is profoundly sorry as he starts a new life?
"I want to apologize for all that I have done and all the things that happened," he said.
He took a special opportunity to apologize to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has suspended him indefinitely, and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and coach Bobby Petrino – all of whom Vick admitted lying to when he originally denied any involvement in dogfighting.
"I was not honest or forthright in our discussions," he said. "I was ashamed and totally disappointed in myself, to say the least."
Vick looked and sounded convincing, a nearly broken man with a deep fear of the future. That, in its own right, may be the start of justice considering the cruelty he and his crew at Bad Newz Kennels showed in torturing and murdering pit bulls.
Whether the people and NFL will accept him after paying his debt to society remains to be seen. We are, almost always, a forgiving nation, and Vick has taken the first public step toward reconciliation. He admitted guilt, blamed himself and apologized to his young fans. That was about all he could do at this stage, deeds and crimes long done.
"Use me as an example to use better judgment and make better decisions," he said to the kids who loved him as a football star.
"I will redeem myself. I have to."
These were the right things to say after so many wrong actions. But for Michael Vick, whether one Henry Hudson was listening, or moved, is all that matters now.
- Michael Vick