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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Vick faces difficult road back

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

An NFL player's serving time in jail or prison is not common, but it is hardly unprecedented.

An unofficial survey indicated that about two dozen NFL players served jail or prison time over the past 10 years, with convictions ranging from murder (former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth) to probation terms violated because of substance abuse (former Oakland Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich).

But returning to the NFL, and performing at a level commensurate to what a player had achieved before his incarceration? That is indeed rare. So as quarterback Michael Vick attempts to regain the form that made him one of the league's most dynamic performers before he was convicted of dogfighting charges, the former Atlanta Falcons star faces long odds.

"You can't overdo it, or [establish] false expectations," said former NFL tailback Bam Morris, convicted of three offenses (possession of marijuana, assault and parole violation) during a six-year career that was equal parts brilliant and tragic. "It's hard to put Superman's cape back on once it's off. Prison takes something away from you, and it's really hard to get it back."

Morris was a powerful, slashing tailback who won the Doak Walker Award at Texas Tech in 1993 as the nation's best college running back. He was a third-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1994 and played in Super Bowl XXX. Morris, now 37 and living near Houston, concedes that his story is a cautionary tale for any player who thinks he can mix his football career with out-of-control partying and destructive indiscretions.

In 1996, when he was a starter in Pittsburgh and arguably a rising star in the league, Morris pleaded guilty to felony possession of marijuana after police testified they found four kilograms of marijuana and one gram of cocaine in his car during a traffic stop. Morris was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and fined $7,000.

The Steelers released him before the start of the '96 season.

After signing with Baltimore as a free agent, Morris played two seasons for the Ravens, and both campaigns were truncated by league-imposed suspensions. He was released by the Ravens after two seasons.

During the 1997 season, Morris pleaded guilty to assaulting a female friend. Then, in 2000, after spending short tours in Chicago and Kansas City, he pleaded guilty to two federal counts of drug trafficking, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Morris was then convicted in 2001 of violating his parole and sentenced to 10 years in a Texas prison.

Morris attempted a comeback in the NFL after serving 30 months of prison time, but his physical skills had eroded and he failed to make a roster. His NFL career essentially over, Morris then played in two indoor football leagues for $100 to $200 a game.

"You get the opinion that you're invincible, that you can somehow [regain] what you were," Morris said. "But prison, whether it's low-level or a high-security place, it's still prison. You definitely lose your freedom. And, whether you can admit it or not at first, you lose some of your [football] skills too. Even for a guy as talented as Vick, it's hard to get that stuff back.

"When that reality sets in, it's tough to accept."

Celebrity is hard to find, Morris said, even in the prison population. Inmates who are doing hard time often resent players because they feel they squandered their athletic skills and a high-profile lifestyle.

One player who served time in prison and returned to have a successful NFL career was tailback Barry Word. Word played for seven seasons in the NFL after serving five months in prison on a cocaine distribution charge following his final season at the University of Virginia. He rushed for 2,897 yards in the league, ran for a career-best 1,015 yards for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990, and was chosen as the NFL's comeback player of the year that season.

But even Word conceded in a 1990 interview that he was "really rare."

Nearly 20 years later, that appears still to be the case. Only a few players, such as Tank Johnson, Leonard Little and Jamal Lewis, have made it back from jail or prison sentences of any length, though none of them missed two full seasons, as Vick has. And the past 10 years are littered with players who didn't make it back to the NFL, such as Lawrence Phillips, Alonzo Spellman and Troy Hambrick.

Some of those players are recidivists, men who served multiple terms. But some are one-time offenders, and in the NFL, that makes a comeback difficult enough, as Michael Vick could find out.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.