Unique talent, inexplicable fall

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The snow was falling from the dark sky near Lambeau Field. It was January 2003, the playoffs, and this, as all students of NFL past and present understood, was set up to be a romp for the Packers and Brett Farve.

Instead, the future showed up. Michael Vick, a 22-year-old first-year starter for the Atlanta Falcons, ran all over the icy place; a quarterback whose feet were as dangerous as his arm. The result was a 27-7 postseason shocker.

"We couldn't tackle him," lamented then Packers coach Mike Sherman.

Football fans were mesmerized. Vick had burst onto the scene that season with highlight play after highlight play, but this was different.

This was when it mattered in a place where pride still mattered. And this was a kid ushering in what seemed to be a new era of the game, the breathtaking athlete playing quarterback. He did things we hadn't quite seen before, as Michael Jordan and Willie Mays once did in other sports.

That night occurred not five years ago, which could be less than the amount of Vick's federal prison sentence for his role in a brutal dogfighting ring that he will plead guilty to next Monday in Richmond, Va.

His defense team is hoping for a year to 18 months behind bars, but it could be more. And with federal sentencing guidelines, Vick will serve at least 85 percent of his time. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could tack on a football suspension, perhaps a season or more.

And so, this man's incredible potential is derailed in a most incredible way. We've grown callous to the self-destructing rich and famous of sports and entertainment, be it from drugs or drink, divorce or gambling, even murder and mayhem.

But dogfighting? Did Michael Vick really blow it all – a $130 million contract and multiple endorsement deals – to pursue this barbaric hobby in the woods of Virginia?

"People are going to start looking at me with stupidity," Vick told ESPN during the NFL draft, when he was still declaring his innocence. "That's stupid."

It's beyond stupid. The NFL employs players who have been convicted of spouse abuse, involuntary manslaughter due to drunken driving and obstruction of justice in a homicide investigation, to name a few. It's not called the National Felon League for nothing.

In Hollywood, we've come to treat troubled actors and actresses as theater. In Washington, D.C., political sex and bribe scandals are met with a yawn.

Yet this one shocked America, in part because of the viciousness of the crime and in part because of its senselessness.

Vick isn't some talentless starlet or a hack politician. He was a true star with true ability, and in his prime at 27, set up to be a top player in America's top sport.

And now he has virtually nothing; just a cautionary tale of waste.

Soon, Vick will be headed to prison, and if there is justice, he'll spend his time there as alone and frightened as those dogs he and his Bad Newz Kennels crew fought, tortured and killed.

There is no sympathy for a guy whose hobby was so depraved. No excuse for someone who soothed his internal rage by laying waste to lesser creatures.

Vick still has his supporters, some who claim the unusual amount of resources and resolve the federal government deployed to pursue this case as unfair. A federal dogfighting prosecution is rare, after all.

But that's the downside of fame. Authorities believe that a high-profile conviction will curb the crime among the average citizen. To whom much is given, much is expected, and Vick was given it all and only expected to obey the law.

If anything, naiveté may have finished Vick. There are endless stories about him not realizing the severity of this situation when it began, not immediately hiring an attorney to defend himself, joking with friends that he would beat this rap. He must have known it was illegal, but he couldn't have expected it was such a serious charge.

What he may have seen as a harmless hobby – something to blow off steam when not competing in a violent game – has all but ruined him.

At this point, as reality has smacked him soundly in the face, as the dread of extended time in prison hits, as the endorsements, his good name and his nine-figure contract disappear, he'll spend time wondering, like the rest of us, how it all went so horribly wrong.

Michael Vick, just five years ago, was poised to redefine football, set to take his place in the hallowed pantheon of sports greats.

Today he is nothing but a hollow, heartless criminal, done in by his own base stupidity in one of the most astounding and ugly falls from grace in modern American sports.