|Mentors of the football star say his trust and loyalty to friends from his past may be his undoing. Getty Images file photo|
Related: Prosecutor in dog fighting probe confident there will be charges|
State Game Warden Clint Wooten had no idea he was about to cite the NFL's best-paid player for a violation until he saw his driver's license.
The man offering the identification was Michael Vick, whose outing with two friends that Tuesday afternoon in February was cut short when Wooten noticed their boat didn't have a $40 fishing sticker required for Norfolk's Western Branch Reservoir.
The Atlanta Falcons quarterback struck Wooten as cordial and courteous.
"Sometimes as a police officer," he said, "it's really refreshing to deal with a nice guy."
But lately Vick's nice-guy image has been taking a hit, in part because of his own off-field indiscretions and the behavior of several associates. Some Vick supporters fear that low-grade criminal activities and misconduct by his inner circle could threaten the career of one of the NFL's brightest stars.
Five members of Vick's circle have been arrested on a total of five drug charges and three firearms charges, plus other offenses. Several are tied to a Surry County house Vick owned when an investigation into organized dogfighting began.
One of them, his cousin, Davon T. Boddie, has been arrested twice this year. Boddie's April arrest led to the discovery of 66 dogs at the Surry County house.
Another associate, Charles W. "C.J." Reamon Jr., was with Vick during the February fishing excursion. Reamon has three convictions related to illegal firearms or airport security, including an incident last August when he was caught carrying a loaded .357 Glock into the Newport News-Williamsburg terminal.
Vick's inner circle also includes younger brother Marcus, who, like Michael, was a star quarterback at Virginia Tech. He was kicked off the football team after a series of legal and on-field problems, and later left school.
Two other men - Tony Taylor and Quanis L. Phillips - have had drug-related brushes with the law. Both are tied to Vick through a business whose name appeared on the "Vick's K9 Kennels" Web site, which said it bred pit bulls but was not involved with dogfighting. The Web site, no longer online, was linked to MV7 LLC, a company affiliated with Vick, whose Falcons jersey is No. 7.
Taylor had been arrested in Newport News on a cocaine possession charge in 1996; it was dismissed after he completed a substance-abuse program and one year of good behavior.
"I think people have used Michael and taken advantage of his kindness and ability to take care of them," said Virginia Tech assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh, who recruited Vick out of Warwick High School in Newport News. "Mike is a trusting guy.... I think as your family gets extended, you have to be careful."
Cavanaugh said the structure of college kept Vick insulated from negative influences while at Tech. Now that Vick is "out in the real world," Cavanaugh said, "his circle of loyalty will have to shrink."
James A."Poo" Johnson, assistant Chief Executive Officer of the Boys &Girls Clubs of the Virginia Pennisula, once mentored a young Michael Vick. Mort Fryman/The Virginian-Pilot
People who know Vick describe him as loyal to a fault. He has difficulty saying no, whether it's for help on bills, rent, vehicles or bail money.
His mother, who declined an interview request, told James Johnson, a mentor of Vick's since their years together at the Boys and Girls Club, how her son's generosity and loyalties have created problems for him.
Vick, who has said he did not know what was happening at the house, could be charged with a felony if investigators prove the property was used to support a dogfighting operation. An NFL suspension could follow.
Authorities last month discovered the dogs, most of them pit bulls, at the house at 1915 Moonlight Road, which Vick has since sold. Boddie, Vick's cousin, listed that address as his residence when he was arrested on an April marijuana charge in Hampton. That case is pending.
Meanwhile, Vick has had issues of his own. In April 2006, he settled a civil suit that had been filed by a woman who said he infected her with genital herpes. Terms of the settlement were not announced.
Earlier this year, airport security officers in Miami confiscated a water bottle Vick was carrying through a checkpoint when they discovered it had a hidden compartment. It tested negative for drugs, and Vick later said he used the compartment to hide his jewelry. He was not charged with a crime.
And last season, Vick was fined $10,000 by the NFL for obscene gestures he made toward heckling fans after a loss at home. Vick, whose $130 million contract is the league's most lucrative, also agreed to donate $10,000 to a charity of his choice.
Since the dog fighting charges surfaced, Vick has had private talks with Falcons' owner Arthur Blank and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
66 dogs suspected to have been used in dog fighting were found at this Surry County house owned by Michael Vick in April. The Virginian-Pilot file photo
After the Goodell meeting, Vick told ESPN: "I have a game plan for it.... The company I keep, a lot of things gotta change, and I mean that from the heart."
Vick grew up in the East End of Newport News, a neighborhood known for its gun violence, poverty and crime. Karen Pierce, Vick's seventh-grade teacher at Huntington Middle School, said drug dealers sometimes approached her when she dropped students off at their homes.
"He has seen so many kids killed and put in jail, kids that he grew up with," Pierce said of Vick.
His mother, Brenda Boddie, drove a school bus to support Vick and his three siblings. She provided a strong presence at home, but money was often tight, said Johnson, the Boys and Girls Club official.
"He saw how it felt to be without," Johnson said. That experience helps explain why it's so difficult for him now, when he has so much money, to say no to friends who are still struggling, Johnson said.
"Sometimes he's loyal to a fault," Johnson said. "The guys that he chose as friends are guys that he grew up with in the 'hood."
And sometimes Vick gets himself in trouble by "just not thinking" about the consequences, Johnson said.
Johnson - who, along with Pierce, serves on the board of the charitable Michael Vick Foundation - used to boot Vick out of the Boys and Girls Club when he would kick the basketball across the gym after losing. These days, Johnson says he still tells Vick when he's wrong and encourages him to own up to his mistakes.
Some from Vick's old neighborhood think the NFL star attracts more negative attention because he's black, but Johnson said he's never known Vick to make that complaint.
"I've never heard Mike mention race," Johnson said. "I've heard him say, 'Man, I've done made some bad decisions here now, and I've got to straighten this out.' "
This spring, about 25 boys from Vick's old middle school completed the first year of an after-school program called Michael Vick's People. The program focuses on building strong character traits, such as compassion, responsibility and respect. Pierce said Vick stays closely involved in the direction of the subject matter and often visits with the kids.
When Vick visits, "he spends a lot of time talking about how important it is to stay out of trouble, make good choices," Pierce said.
Vick spoke with his former coach at Tech, Frank Beamer, in New York last month during the NFL draft. They took part in a ceremony to honor Virginia Tech and the victims of the April 16 campus shooting.
Beamer said he told Vick that "he's got to be careful about who he has around him. Because if they do something, then all of a sudden he's done something. People don't care to read about that other guy. They want to read about Michael Vick."
Elite athletes such as Vick "are brands of their own," said Duke University anthropology professor Orin Starn. "There's so much money at stake, these guys are miniature corporations, and their 'posse' is their traveling office.
"Sports is a business run by rich white men. For many black athletes, having their own posse, their family members, is their way of creating a culture they feel comfortable in."
The fact that sometimes the associates back home have shadowy pasts - or that they "don't look like, act like, middle America," Starn says - can be costly for the luminaries they're associated with.
Donald H. Smith, an Old Dominion University sociology professor, agrees, citing the example of another sports superstar with Hampton Roads roots, Allen Iverson. Like Vick, Iverson, one of the NBA's top performers during the past decade, surrounded himself with longtime cronies, some with checkered pasts.
"These guys are still driving around with their old pals from the neighborhood, and it's not helping them at all," Smith said. "Iverson has a tennis-shoe contract and a couple local things, but that's about it."
He cited, as a contrast, athletes who have avoided the stigma, such as Shaquille O'Neal. "You see him on TV every day," Smith said of the NBA player. "He has endorsement contracts worth millions of dollars."
The phenomenon is not unique to black athletes, he said: "Pete Rose had his entourage of gambling buddies, and look what happened to him." Rose, baseball's all-time hits leader, has been denied entry into the Hall of Fame because of a gambling controversy.
It might be too early to tell if Vick's problems will hurt contracts with several big-brand companies, including Nike, Air Tran Airways, EA Sports, Coca-Cola, Powerade, Kraft, Rawlings and Hasbro. The most lucrative contract is reportedly with Nike. Vick's agent, Joel Segal, did not return phone calls seeking comment last week.
As a player at Virginia Tech, Vick became legendary for his elusive moves, carrying the Hokies to the national championship game in 2000. In 2001, he became the first black quarterback to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Vick has contributed a significant amount of money to Virginia Tech over the years, and his name and likeness are on a wing of the Merriman Center, which the football team uses for film study.
After seeing Vick as a college player in 1999, ESPN analyst Lee Corso observed: "I've never seen a freshman football player better than Michael Vick. I've seen 'em all. He's the best... and as long as he keeps his smile and watches who he hangs around with, I mean this guy has got the world in his hands."
News researchers Ann Johnson, Jakon Hays and Maureen Watts contributed to this report.