Michael Vick didn't know what to expect as he walked under the razor wire, through the metal detector and past three security gates into the courtyard of Avon Park Correctional Institute last Saturday morning. It was the first time that the Eagles' quarterback had been back in a prison since May 20, 2009, when he left the U.S. penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans., after serving 17 months there for his role in a dogfighting operation. But while Vick was a little nervous, he also felt something else. He felt useful.
Under a scorching Central Florida sun, Vick signed autographs, bumped fists and shared stories with inmates. About wardrobe for visiting day. About solitary confinement. (Vick spent 56 days of his sentence alone, out of contact with anyone except guards.) And about football.
"Hey, Vick!" one young inmate snarled with a smile. "Why'd you do my Giants like that?"
Vick: "Cause they were in the way."
"Mike," a confident middle-aged man said, "you rushed that last throw against Green Bay, didn't you?"
Vick smiled. "I did," he said, speaking of the end zone interception against the Packers that ended Philadelphia's playoffs. "If I could take one throw back all year, that's the one I'd change."
Now a guy in his early 20s edged to the front of the crowd. "If you could do it all over again," said the inmate, his eyes meeting Vick's, "what's the one thing you'd do different?"
The answer was stunning. "Nothing," Vick said. "I mean, make some better choices. But I needed time to change. Everything happens for a reason."
Nothing? Vick would clarify his thoughts on the 94-mile bus ride back to Tampa. He'd come on the trip with his adviser, Tony Dungy, and volunteers from Abe Brown Ministries, the prison-ministry group with which Dungy has worked for the past 15 years. "As crazy as this sounds," Vick would say as the bus rolled past endless orange groves, "if I was standing outside a prison two years ago with what I know now, and you gave me the choice of going in and changing my life or staying out and continuing to live the life I was living, I'd go in. I'd change some things. The dogs, obviously. And maybe six months, not 17. But I needed to change. God gave me a timeout."
When Vick spoke to some 300 inmates in the courtyard at Avon Park, even the hangers-on in the back of the crowd, men who'd heard messages of hope before, stood in silent attention. Vick told them that as a teenager he sometimes slept with the Bible under his pillow, but when he became a football star he veered from the religious life. He thought he could make up his own rules, and it cost him. "Going into prison was tough," he said. "You know that. There were days I wanted to lay down in my bunk, pull the covers over my head and cry. But I realized I wanted to live the right way. I wanted to be an instrument of change. That's what you have to do at the end of the day. No matter why you're in here, own up to your actions. Hold yourself accountable. Have a plan, so when you get outside those gates you're going to have a chance. This is not the end for you. This is not it! You control your destiny.
"How many of you guys got kids?"
About half the men raised their hands, and Vick, who has three children, recounted the agony of telling his oldest child that he was going away. "You brought them into the world," he told the inmates. "They look up to you. You owe them. They deserve better. They deserve better!"
Vick continued. "Use your mind. Use your brain. Educate yourself. No excuses. It's about faith. Believe in yourself."
It's easy for Vick, with his multimillion-dollar skills, to tell men with grim futures in a terrible economy to have hope, but they latched onto his words nonetheless. "After falling so far, he got his mind right," said inmate John Anzaldua. "He showed me that a person can live life right after making such a big mistake."
"I cry many a night," said inmate Willie Wilson. "But what he said was awesome. These guys need some hope."
At one point, guards led Vick into solitary, where inmates who've violated regulations are housed in 8-by-10-foot windowless cells—just a shelf, a narrow bunk and a metal toilet. Prisoners here get three hours a week outside their cells. Vick reached through the bars to meet one 18-year-old inmate who'd been in jail for three years and wasn't due out until 2019.
Vick told him he was still young, still had time to get educated. "Keep your head up," Vick said. As he moved on to the next cell, the young inmate peered out. "I thought they was lyin'," he said. "Michael Vick was here!"
On the bus back to Tampa, Vick reflected on the experience. "I'm really happy I came," he said. "Those guys are so young. So young. When you're that young, you think you're a grown man, but you're really not. The kid I saw in solitary, he's going to be 26 when he gets out. He's got time to develop a strategy.
"He's got time to change his life."
REACHING OUT At Avon Park, Vick (with Dungy, right) used his own story to connect with the general population and those in solitary.