BALTIMORE (AP) — Inside the banquet hall, a humbled but defiant Michael Vick was honored Tuesday night as one of 32 NFL players to receive the Ed Block Courage Award.
Outside, dozens of protesters expressed dismay over his nomination.
The award is presented to players who exemplify commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage. Each NFL team selects their own recipient, and most of the winners were on hand for the gala event Tuesday night.
Vick was picked as the Philadelphia Eagles' representative by a unanimous vote of his teammates. Once a star quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons, Vick was convicted in 2007 for his role in a dogfighting ring and served 18 months in federal prison.
"I'm very humbled to be here," Vick said before the award ceremony. "I'm blessed to be voted by my peers, to be here, and this is an opportunity that I will take advantage of and cherish forever."
It was the first award he received since being reinstated by the NFL in September 2009.
"It shows I'm making strides," Vick said. "I'm trying to do the right thing."
There were police cars at every driveway of the parking lot, and security inside the building was heavier than usual at the 32nd annual event.
Many of the protesters outside carried signs, one of which said, "No Award For Dog Killers."
Erin Marcus, of Open The Cages Alliance, said, "I don't think there have been enough time for him to show the proper remorse for what he's done to animals."
Many of the other 2009 Ed Block Award winners rebounded from serious injuries to excel in 2009, such as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae and Baltimore Ravens safety Dawan Landry.
Vick, of course, had to bounce back from something entirely different.
"I think I do exemplify what this award stands for," Vick insisted. "I think everybody has the right to their own opinion. But I feel like I've done everything that I said I would do, coming out and moving forward. My peers felt like I was doing the right thing, and that I display courage and sportsmanship and leadership. I value their opinion."
Vick did more than just show up to collect a piece of hardware. He spent hours Monday and Tuesday speaking to kids at a community center and at the Baltimore Ravens Courage House, which houses abused children.
"It's easy to see, when you spend a couple of days with Michael Vick, why his Philadelphia Eagles teammates picked him as the Courage Award winner. It's been that impressive," Ed Block spokesman Paul Mittermeier said.
Mittermeier said the Eagles will dedicate a Courage House in Philadelphia next year on behalf of Vick.
Vick was signed as a free agent with Philadelphia during the preseason and playing sparingly in 2009 as the backup to Donovan McNabb. The Eagles have exercised their 2010 option on Vick, meaning the quarterback will receive a $1.5 million roster bonus sometime this week, and the rest of his $5.25 million 2010 salary will be paid by either Philadelphia or another NFL franchise.
"The Eagles picking up the roster bonus, it's a blessing for me, a blessing for my family," Vick said. "As far as I know, I'm a Philadelphia Eagle, and I will carry out the role I've been playing. We'll see what happens. The entire organization knows I want to be a starter."
Off the field, Vick has worked with The Humane Society of the United States, speaking at churches, schools and community groups about the poor judgment he showed in getting involved in dogfighting.
"Michael Vick approached us and said he wanted to be part of the solution instead of the problem," Michael Markarian, executive vice president and CEO of the Humane Society, said before the event. "We asked him if he do volunteer work, go to communities all over the country and talk to at-risk youth and try to steer them away from dogfighting."
Markarian said Vick has told his story in "about a dozen" cities.
"The Humane Society of the United States was the toughest critic of Michael Vick when these allegations first came to light," Markarian said. "But we want to find creative solutions to try to reach kids, particularly young men, who get pitbulls for the wrong reason. They are really moved after they hear Michael Vick's story, and it turns them away from dogfighting."
Which, to some, explains why Vick received the Ed Block Courage Award.
The award, named after longtime Baltimore Colts trainer Ed Block, was first presented in 1978.