Monday, in a federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., Michael Vick appeared before a U.S. district judge and admitted he was guilty of deceit, of depravity, of a multimillionaire's arrogance and of a superstar's ignorance.
The question is, will his peers in the NFL, as well as those players in the college and high school football pipeline, learn from Vick's spectacular mistakes? Can Vick unintentionally do good by providing such a detailed blueprint of what can happen when you do bad?
Vick is more than a cautionary tale; he's a textbook example of why athletes, even the richest and most celebrated, are exactly one galactically stupid decision away from ruin. And yet, they keep making the same errors in judgment, as if they can buy enough Kevlar to make them bulletproof from their own stupidity.
Vick used Atlanta Falcons money, or Nike money, or Coca-Cola money, or EA Sports money (hey, everybody loved Mike back then) to bankroll a gambling operation so repugnant that you need a barf bag to watch the footage of what happens when pit bulls are turned into canine gladiators. Even more repugnant is what Vick and the rest of his torture squad did to the dogs that underperformed in the sadistic training sessions. That's when Vick and two others who have entered pleas drowned, hanged or electrocuted the animals. Of course, in the clever, sterile and nuanced language of the plea agreement, Vick's lawyers refer to the killings by the disgraced quarterback and his accomplices as "the collective efforts."
Anyway, thanks to the collective efforts of federal prosecutors, the three co-defendants who turned on him, and a Vick legal team that realized its client was toast, Vick made his deal with the government. A month ago he stood in the same Richmond courthouse and lied about his innocence, and then, knowing he was lying, had the audacity to ask for our patience and the chance to clear his "good name." He was an accomplished liar, having denied any wrongdoing to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about three months earlier.
You are part of the NFL's future, just like Vick was part of it, an important part of it, until he couldn't lie his way out of the dogfighting conspiracy charges. Now he's radioactive, the isotope 235 of athletes. Everything he touches dies: endorsements, Arthur Blank's bonus money, dogs.
There is no such thing as bulletproof sports celebrity. Most players understand this. Spend just 15 minutes with LaDainian Tomlinson and you know he understands. The day Tomlinson's name appears on a police blotter is the day I officially give up on athletes.
For every Vick, there are 10 Tomlinsons. For every Pacman Jones, there are 10 Deuce McAllisters and Drew Breeses. For every Tank Johnson, there are 10 Warrick Dunns, Peyton Mannings and Derrick Brookses. And yet Vick, by the sheer brutality of his actions, has managed to perform a solar eclipse of the NFL.
He had so much in front of him. He had put so much distance behind him. Success seemed to be his best friend.
Think about it: Vick was born in the projects of Newport News, Va., the son of a 17-year-old father and a 16-year-old mother. When he was an infant, his teenage father cradled him in his palms as they stood under the stars and, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile written in 2001, recited the famous line from "Roots":
"Behold," said Michael Boddie as he held his child that night, "the only thing greater than yourself."
Vick was a sports prodigy. You were rendered speechless by his talent. He was a star in high school. He was a star at Virginia Tech. He was destined to be a star in the NFL.
But it did happen. The Chargers traded down from the No. 1 overall position in the 2001 NFL draft to the No. 5 spot. The Falcons giddily took Vick. Dan Reeves, Atlanta's head coach at the time, would later say, "He's a great football player, but he's an exceptional young man who I think will set this franchise up for a long time to come."
A city and franchise rejoiced. Then-team president Taylor Smith received a standing ovation from fans during a draft-day function at Falcons headquarters. Vick was theirs.
Meanwhile, the Journal-Constitution profile would later gush over the newly acquired quarterback, noting that on his mother's birthday Vick spent much of the day running in the woods with his dogs as they chased animals.
"As much as he loves football," the Journal-Constitution observed, "Vick loves dogs."
The Chargers? They made do with their Sam Bowie, a TCU running back by the name of Tomlinson. This was the same Tomlinson unwanted by the Falcons and passed over by the Arizona Cardinals at No. 2 (OT Leonard Davis), then the Cleveland Browns (DT Gerard Warren), then the Cincinnati Bengals (DE Justin Smith).
As for Vick, he told reporters, "I feel the Lord has blessed me by sending me to Atlanta." The six-year, $62 million contract helped, too.
It can change in a heartbeat. In Vick's case, the last heartbeat of an electrocuted pit bull.
One moment you're on the easy-money memorabilia circuit, the talk show circuit, the celeb red carpet circuit. You're buying an Escalade and a house for your mom. You've got that 4.35 speed, that 40-inch vertical, that achingly strong left arm. You make moves that cause veteran teammates to mutter, "Can't coach that."
The next moment you're standing in front of U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, your career, your reputation, your good name ... vaporized. Even your estranged father, whose apartment you pay the rent, piles on.
This is the lesson Vick offers to the NFL's Steven Jackson, Larry Johnson, Frank Gore and Willie Parker. To the elite names on the 2007 draft board, such as Glenn Dorsey, Jake Long, and Chad Henne. To the emerging college stars such as Tim Tebow and Myron Rolle. To the 2007 top high school recruits such as Julio Jones and Will Hill.
Vick is speaking to you from Richmond. Listen to every word.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.