'My heart don't pump fear no more'

Serving a 23-month sentence might have taught Michael Vick more than his six years in the NFL. Nigel Parry

This article appears in the Dec. 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine as No. 13 in The Mag's list of the biggest 100 sports stories of the year.

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Michael Vick is trying to keep his balance.

Standing in a room inside the Eagles' practice facility, he perches awkwardly on one leg as he attempts to wiggle on cleats. His hands are filled with Air Force I's, a hairbrush, skullcap, cell phone and rosary beads. Someone offers Vick a chair, and he chuckles, "C'mon, man, a chair? I was away for a few years, but I'm still pretty athletic."

Vick is hoping everyone in the NFL hears that message. Just a few seasons ago, he was the NFL's highest-paid player. But in December 2007, the QB was sentenced to 23 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting conspiracy charges. Upon his release this past summer, a bankrupt Vick was
reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell, then signed a two-year deal with the Eagles that could be worth $9.8 million. Back in playing shape, Vick recently opened up about prison, regret and just how badly he's itching to begin the second half of his career.

There are days in life you never forget.

Two days after I got off home confinement -- July 22, 2009, to be exact -- was the first time in eight months I got to pick up a football and really throw it. I went over to my high school coach's school and threw routes to some high school kids, a few friends and my brother, Marcus. The ball came out so strong. I still had the strength, the accuracy. That felt great. But it was a relief, too. Cause I knew I still had that special thing.

To be honest, I was never worried about my arm. When I was little, in Newport News, Va., the drunks would hang out on the corner, and I could swindle them out of a quick dollar by betting I could throw a ball or a rock over my building. I'll be able to throw a football when I'm 60. Just today, I picked the ball up and threw it 70 yards.

Every week in prison I had to watch my fiancee and my kids leave me behind. At the beginning they used to cry, and that would make me cry, but you know what cut me deeper than anything else I went through? When they stopped crying.

The thing I worried about most was my legs. Passing revolves around your footwork. I hadn't been able to run or train or do extensive workouts for two years. All I could do in prison was be a fan of football. And when I got out, I was 15 pounds overweight, and I just knew I didn't have that same speed and quickness in my legs. Before I signed with the Eagles, I was trying to force myself to lose weight, trying to get back in shape quickly, and it wasn't happening. For the first time football didn't come easy. I had to come to grips with the fact
that as an athlete, just like everything else, I was
starting over again from ground zero.

But at least I'm playing. I'm always being asked, "What was prison like?" Well, every day felt like a bad dream. I had plenty of moments where I was like, What happened? Was it all worth it? Everything I risked? Why didn't I take the initiative to stop it?

People want to talk about the money I lost, but what does it matter? The only person who should be concerned with that is me, because I'm the one who lost it. I lost it because I was doing something wrong. But I don't even care about the money. I lost something a lot worse than that. I lost my family. Every week in prison I had to watch my fiancée and my kids leave me behind. They would turn left, out into the world to fend for themselves, and I would turn right to go back into prison. At the beginning they used to cry, and that would make me cry. My kids were hurting. After awhile they got immune to me leaving the visiting room, and they stopped crying. Seeing them cry hurt. But you know what cut me deeper than anything else I went through? When they stopped crying. I was like, They ain't crying, and I'm not crying. What's going on here? This is too normal. This is not our life. This ain't the way it's supposed to be.

I still wouldn't change that I went to prison. Without jail I probably would have never changed. And if I hadn't changed, who knows? After dealing with the things I was dealing with and the people I was dealing with, it could have been worse. I could have been dead. I've matured, and I learned patience, which I never had. And I have no fear now. I will never fear nor doubt anything in my life ever again, especially on the football field. Five years from now I could be facing some impossible situation on the field, and all I have to do is think: Five years ago you were sitting in a prison cell, go out and enjoy this. After what I've been through? My heart don't pump fear no more.

At first I worried people wouldn't be receptive of me. I was scared about that. You don't want to
be the guy in the grocery store who everybody's looking at and saying this and saying that, and it's all ugly and negative. I was used to people praising me every day and speaking highly of me. But now you've got people saying, "He's crazy, he's insane, look what he was involved in." It can be scary, because the things you condoned -- the things people read about you and the things they believe -- mean you never know how they will perceive you or respond to you. That hurts. That hurts a lot.

But the people I encounter every day, at the movies or Popeyes chicken, those are the ones who build up confidence in me. Because they are always saying, "Mike, we're pulling for you." Some of them also say, "Listen, we might not like what you did, but we're pulling for you." But that's what gives me the drive to move on and do better. As a man, first, and as a football player second.

It's funny. When I was in Leavenworth, we'd be watching TV, and guys would be talking about new things going on with the game. I'd say, softly, "Man, you know who invented the Wildcat or whatever they want to call it? That was me, all the way." The guys would nod and go, "Yeah, yeah, that's right, you was doing that back in Atlanta." And I'd be like, C'mon, man, how do you think I ran for 1,000 yards in one season?

I've always been a trendsetter. That's what I miss the most about my old life: I miss running with the football and using my arm and my legs to control the game. That's what I do: take control of games. And I know I can still do it.

Physically this game has always come very easy to me. That compensated for a lot of the technique that I was doing wrong when I was in Atlanta. I was open to coaching before, but I'd just get in games and lose it. I used to go through the game plan, and I'd know the concepts and where everyone was supposed to be, but I didn't study coverages and fronts and blitz schemes. Who knows what would have happened if I did? Other things became distractions. Maybe I was the main distraction. I was not setting the example and being the leader I was supposed to be. I think about a lot of things down there and how I should have done things different. I don't want to make the same mistakes. I don't want to end my career and have a lot of regrets, like, Man, if I had just done this better or worked harder on this part of my game. That would kill me more than anything. So I'm gonna prevent it while I have the chance. I like the challenge of it. I study now. I get into that playbook and spend time in the film room.

There have been plenty of times in practice and a couple of times in games when I felt it all coming back. I still feel like I can do almost anything on the field, and I want the people and players around me to take that and feel like that too. I think that's why we won when I was in Atlanta. I'm looking forward to going back to the Georgia Dome. I may not do much. I may not even play in the game. But just having the opportunity to be there and maybe have a chance to talk to the Falcons owner, Mr. Blank, before the game -- that would be a great thing for me. I spent many a Sunday making that crowd go wild, and I appreciate all those fans. They were great. Man, I miss them days.

But now it's time for the second half of my career. I was a dynamic player before I left the game, and I will be again. Every day I'm making progress. It might be baby steps, but I'm getting there. I feel like that old swagger is coming back, and I'm finally starting to feel like myself again. Guys come up to me after games. They give me their blessing and let me know they're in my corner and if I ever need anything to just reach out to them. I tell them, "All I need is your support."
I will do the rest.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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