Now here he was standing in front of a federal judge in Richmond, ready to complete his extraordinary fall. Just a year before, Falcons owner Arthur Blank made Vick the NFL’s highest-paid player.
In his guilty plea, Vick admitted to executing some of the pit bulls that didn’t measure up to fight. This happened during the time he financed and ran the Bad Newz operation from 2001 until spring 2007.
This also happened to cover the same time frame when Vick dazzled Falcons fans. His electrifying style of running and his canon of an arm led the Falcons to the playoffs and filled the stands with fans wearing No. 7 jerseys. It seemed possible that one day a majestic bronze statue of Vick would be placed outside the Georgia Dome.
It wasn’t just how Vick could improvise in the pocket, shaking off and eluding certain sacks. It was that for the first time in NFL history the league’s most athletic player was a quarterback. Put simply, Vick made Falcons’ games essential viewing to sports fans.
And he was big news in Atlanta even before he put his No. 7 jersey on.
The Falcons upended the 2001 NFL draft with a stunning trade to get Vick with the No. 1 overall pick. In exchange, they sent their first- and third-round picks in that draft, a second-round pick in the 2002 draft and kick returner Tim Dwight to the San Diego Chargers.
It was a win-now deal for a team that had gone 16-32 the previous three seasons. In 2002, Vick’s first year as a starter, the team went 7-0-1 in one stretch. This included a remarkable 46-yard touchdown dash by Vick in overtime to finish off the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13.
In the playoffs, the Falcons traveled to Green Bay for a prime-time matchup. A record crowd of 63,358 showed up to watch three-time MVP Brett Favre face Vick, the up-and-coming human highlight reel.
The odds were overwhelmingly in the Packers’ favor. They had been the only team to go undefeated at home that season. They had won all 11 of their playoff games at Lambeau Field. And Favre was 35-0 in home games when the temperature was under 34 degrees. On that Jan. 4, 2003, evening, the thermometer stood at 31 degrees.
But the 22-year-old Vick led the Falcons on a 76-yard touchdown drive on their first possession and never looked back. At halftime, when it started snowing, the Falcons had an eye-popping 24-0 lead. When Favre took a knee on the game’s final play, it was Atlanta 27, Green Bay 7.
“Mike did a tremendous job,” Coach Dan Reeves said of his quarterback. “He is amazing in that it seems like the tougher the situation, the better he is.”
The Falcons would lose to the Philadelphia Eagles during the next playoff round, but the sky seemed the limit for Vick.
He made the Pro Bowl that year and two of the next three.
In 2004, in a game against the Denver Broncos, Vick became the first NFL quarterback to pass for more than 250 yards and rush for more than 100 yards in a single game. The Falcons made the playoffs that year, too, and reached the NFC Championship game. But once again they lost to the Eagles.
Falcon-mania was in full swing. Blank rewarded his superstar with a nine-year, $130 million contract extension.
The Falcons missed the playoffs the next two years, but in 2006 Vick became the first NFL quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. (He finished with 1,039.) He also set an NFL record with a whopping 8.4 yards per carry.
But the first sign that Vick's world was about to crash occurred April 25, 2007, when police executed a search warrant at a property Vick owned in Surry County, Va. Although authorities were investigating drug charges against Vick's cousin, they found evidence of dogfighting.
» PHOTOS: Michael Vick's former dogfighting property
Vick blamed family members.
“I’m never there,” he said at the NFL draft in New York. “They just haven't been doing the right thing. The issue will get resolved. ... When it all boils down, people will try to take advantage of you and leave you out to dry. Lesson learned for me.”
Vick showed up at the Falcons minicamp in May. But weeks later, federal authorities executed two more searches at the property, carrying out boxes and bringing in a backhoe to dig.
The federal indictment came July 17, 2007, with a shocking portrayal of animal cruelty.
It said that shortly before his property was raided, Vick was there putting some of his pit bulls through test fights to see what they were made of. Eight pit bulls that didn’t make the cut were killed by Vick and his two of his three co-defendants by “hanging, drowning and slamming at least one dog’s body to the ground,” the indictment alleged.
» MORE: Why Michael Vick remained on Falcons roster until ...
At some fights, purses topped $20,000. And on a number of occasions, a losing dog would be either be shot or watered down and electrocuted.
About a month after his indictment, Vick reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors. In it, he admitted financing Bad Newz Kennels and that it involved the “victimization and killing of pit bull dogs.”
Condemnation was swift. The NFL leveled an indefinite suspension, and Commissioner Roger Goodell said Vick had engaged in “cruel and reprehensible” conduct that damaged the Falcons, the NFL and its fans.
The plea agreement called for a sentence of between and one year and 18 months in prison. Prosecutors initially said they would recommend a sentence on the low end of that scale, but the final say-so would come from U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, known for handing down tough sentences.
Credit: Dayna Verkouteren
Credit: Dayna Verkouteren
» PHOTOS: Michael Vick dogfighting sentencing
Vick, wearing the black-and-white striped jumpsuit, stood before Hudson on Dec. 10, 2017. The judge soon made it clear he wasn’t happy with the way Vick had handled himself since his guilty plea.
Hudson found that Vick, then 27, had lied to FBI agents during an interview when he continued to contend that others, not he, killed pit bulls that were deemed not up to snuff. During that interview, the FBI brought in a polygrapher who found Vick was being deceptive.
When Vick was notified of this, he broke down, his lawyer, Billy Martin, said.
“I did it all,” Vick said, Martin related. “I did everything.”
When Hudson found Vick also lied about testing positive for marijuana in September, the likelihood of a lenient sentence vanished. In the federal court system, defendants can shave off substantial portions of their sentence with a finding they have accepted responsibility for their actions.
But Vick had not fully owned up to what he’d done, which was “promoting, funding and facilitating this cruel and inhumane sporting activity,” Hudson said gravely.
The sentence: 23 months in federal prison for the fallen superstar. In addition, Vick was ordered to pay $928,073 as restitution for the care of 53 dogs seized from his property.
Hours later the Falcons lost 34-14 to the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football. The next day, just 13 games into the season, coach Bobby Petrino quit to go coach the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Falcons would finish with a 4-12 record, alternately relying on journeyman quarterbacks Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman. The offense scored the second-fewest points in the NFC.
Vick served 18 months in custody before being released from the U.S. penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., on May 20, 2009. After spending two months more in home confinement, he went looking for a job — and found one.
The Eagles signed Vick to a $1.6 million contract and his suspension was lifted three games into the season. As if rubbing salt in a wound, Vick ran for a touchdown and threw for another in a 34-7 thumping of the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Week 13.
In 2010, Vick returned to his highlight-reel ways. He was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year and earned his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl. And the man who lost millions of dollars from his Falcons deal because of his dogfighting conviction was awarded a new six-year deal with about $40 million guaranteed.
Vick left the Eagles after the 2013 season and played sporadically for the New York Jets in 2014 and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015 before retiring in 2016.
In June 2017, the Falcons welcomed Vick back for a retirement ceremony with former wide receiver Roddy White.
“Like everybody else on the face of the earth, he has made a mistake in his life,” Blank said at the time.
But there’d be no statue.