DECATUR, Ga – Michael Vick returned to the area that once celebrated his brilliant play on the football field, this time for the first of what he hopes will be dozens of appearances around the country to urge low-income youths to avoid the tragic trail left by dogfighting.
Few got to hear Saturday's message, however.
Vick's visit to a suburban Atlanta community center was largely off limits to the very neighborhood it was supposed to be helping. In an agreement between Vick's handlers and the Humane Society of the United States, only 55 people and one media crew were allowed inside. An Associated Press reporter, videographer and photographer were among the media banished from the property by police.
Most people who live in the largely black neighborhood southeast of Atlanta were unaware of Vick's appearance. Several showed up after the former Falcons quarterback had already left in a black limousine.
"Not too many people knew he was going to be here," said Stan Sutton, who stopped by the New Life Community Center to pick up some clothes and wound up being one of the few invited inside to hear Vick speak. "There would have been a lot more people here than there are now. The whole Eastside would have been here."
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said the group wants to be open and reach as many people as possible with its anti-dogfighting message. But the tightly controlled appearance comes as Vick is trying to rehabilitate his image and ease his path back to the NFL.
"We all realize that he's in a special circumstance," Pacelle said. "We don't want this to be a flash in the pan. We are committed to transparency over the long run and having Michael involved in many community-based events to speak about the issue. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he wants the opportunity in a controlled setting to make his first statement on the issue. But I'm sure he's going to be speaking out more based on what he had to say today."
The quarterback is apparently planning to do his first major interview since completing a 23-month prison sentence with the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," which sent a three-person crew to film the event. The AP was barred from entering, and the windows were covered to prevent anyone from looking inside. Eventually, police were called, and all media were forced to stand on a sidewalk in front of the complex.
The Humane Society did not publicize the event, going along with the media plan laid out by Vick's handlers even if it meant missing the chance to make a real impact in a community where he is still revered for his brilliant play during six years with the Falcons.
"We're giving him an opportunity to plug into our community-based forums," Pacelle said. "But he obviously has his own set of individuals who are working with him and want to present things in the way they want."
A Vick representative said the quarterback would have no comment on the appearance.
Vick entered through a back door and spoke for about 12 minutes, Pacelle said. The small audience was moved by what it heard.
"He said he did wrong," 17-year-old Stanley Jones said. "Now he's trying to come up with a smarter way to help the whole community, for young people like us, to make a change."
Jones said he appreciated having Vick in an area plagued by drugs and violence.
"You usually don't see that in the 'hood. You don't see someone from the NFL," the teenager said, holding up a pamphlet that was given out by the Humane Society: "Dogfighting Hurts."
But Vick's words had more of an impact.
"The thing I got out of it was your past ain't your potential," said Antonio Frazier, a 24-year-old pit bull owner. "Everyone is entitled to redemption. ... Now he wants to stand up and pay for what he's done. He wants to give back to the community."
A leashed dog as taken into the building shortly after Vick arrived, but Pacelle said the animal was kept in a separate room while the quarterback spoke and only brought out for a demonstration after he left. Vick is barred from being around dogs as part of his probation.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally lifted Vick's ban from the league. He can participate in training camp and exhibition games, and would be eligible to return for the sixth week of the regular season if he has no further setbacks.
But Vick, the only quarterback ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, has yet to find a job. Most teams have said they have no intention of signing him, and he may be forced to go with the fledgling United Football League to demonstrate that he's still a useful player after missing the last two seasons.
"Where he goes to play football now is his decision," Goodell said Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Vick didn't discuss his NFL ambitions at New Life Community Center, but it's clear he still has plenty of fans.
"I hope he gets back in the league," Sutton said. "But if he don't, we're still with him."