Commentary

The view from within

How 548 days in prison shaped Michael Vick

Updated: August 26, 2011, 3:17 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Leavenworth prisonPhoto illustration by Pier Nicola D'AmicoAt Leavenworth, a federal prison in Kansas, Michael Vick was Inmate No. 33765-183.

This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

JANUARY 2008, 17 MONTHS TO GO.
Michael Vick arrives at Leavenworth in time for lunch. He's led by guards to a small cafeteria and left alone, inmate No. 33765-183. A few days earlier, word passed quickly through this Kansas federal prison that Vick would be serving the remainder of his 23-month sentence for dogfighting conspiracy here, making him the most famous athlete ever to pass through its doors. Vick doesn't pause to scout his new surroundings; he turns around, drops his eyes, grabs a tray and slides down the lunch line. But he feels the stares burning his back, and he hears every whisper. Oh, he's a small dude. I thought he was bigger.

Vick is handed a plate of pork and a roll. Just as he's about to face the other inmates, he pauses and thinks, Here we go. He pivots and finally scans the room. Black prisoners sit on one side, whites on the other. A few inmates brazenly eye him; the rest act preoccupied. The black side is full, so Vick, not wanting to make a scene, joins the whites. He says nothing, tries his best to look at nothing and no one. He bites into the pork, but it tastes weird. Not at all like pork.

Vick expected Leavenworth to be like what he'd seen on TV: barren halls, dank cells, the entirety of the outside world closed to him and the partitioned remains guarded by expressionless men of the law. But Leavenworth doesn't quite feel like prison. For one thing, it has a visitors lounge -- a square room with glass doors that open to a courtyard dotted with round tables. Nothing divides visitors from prisoners.

It was different at Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va. That's where Vick began his sentence in November 2007, where he could talk to guests only through glass. His 3-year-old daughter, Jada, would ask him why she couldn't see his feet. After a visit, he'd go back to his cell, small as a dorm room, with a toilet, shower and sink. When the door closed the first time, the reality of it all set in. What the hell did I get myself into?

He was supposed to stay in Virginia for all of his 23 months, but he heard that a federally sponsored drug-rehab program could shave maybe a full year off his time. (He'd gotten caught smoking pot before his sentencing, a violation of his pretrial agreement.) So he applied for the program and received a transfer to Leavenworth. Vick said he had assurances from officials there that he would not spend time in its infamous Big House. He would be housed in a smaller neighboring facility on the prison grounds.

And so on Jan. 7 Vick flew from Virginia to Kansas in a small plane and climbed into a car. An officer drove him over the rising and falling wheat-color countryside, frozen for the winter, past the cows and into the town of Leavenworth. But then the car pulled up to the Big House -- concrete and capitol-like, with 40-foot walls and a long row of stairs that flopped like a tongue from its domed entrance. Vick panicked and thought, Man, I've been told a lie. A guard took him inside, handed him a khaki button-down shirt and pants and said, "Do your time and get out of here." Vick was placed in solitary confinement, peach-color cinder blocks surrounding a sink and a toilet. He stayed in solitary for a few hours while his papers were processed, and then he was led, without explanation, to the neighboring camp he'd been promised.

After lunch, after the terrible-tasting pork, he sees his cell for the first time and realizes this is worse; this is actually much worse than solitary confinement. There are no cells at the smaller camp. There are only bunk-bed units, like a barracks block, eight inmates per group.

Night after night, cockroaches roam the floors. Guys shuffle around a lot. Vick witnesses certain things -- "things that should stay in prison," he will later say, refusing to comment further -- that disturb him too much to sleep. At first, he tries earplugs. Then he applies for a midnight-shift job, mopping floors for 12 cents an hour.

On a typical day, he mops in the predawn morning, then watches TV until sunrise and sleeps. He wakes around noon. Uncertain about what else to do, he joins games of chess; a lot of the guys here play. Before Leavenworth, Vick had never tried the game, but in no time he's able to beat every inmate -- except a guy named Huey. Vick never learns anything more about Huey than his name.

At one point, a guard advises Vick to "stay away from everyone and don't make friends." Vick is a target, and there are fights many days. He notices guys studying him, 27 years old, hair unbraided, goatee fuzzy. So Vick remains wary of the others, which is easy enough. Even on the outside he was a closed man, leading a closed life.

In the silence of night he mops floors with a man named Dink-Dink from Kansas City -- to whom Vick speaks just enough to not share anything.


FEBRUARY 2008, 16 MONTHS TO GO.
Why me? That's the thought that keeps racing through his mind. He can't figure out why he landed such a stiff sentence. Twenty-three months in prison for dogfighting? None of the other three defendants in his case got as much time. Why me? He begins to keep a journal, to chronicle it all, to see whether putting it on the page will help him make sense of what his life has become -- a life in prison that everyone but him believes he deserves. "I felt like the law didn't apply to me," Vick would later say.

At times, the journal helps. Familiar faces do too. A few weeks after Vick's incarceration at Leavenworth, C.J. Reamon, round-faced and lanky with a trim goatee, known to Vick as Charlie, enters the visitors lounge and sees his friend.

"Man, they got you out here?" Charlie says.

"Yeah, Charlie, they got me way out here."

Charlie, whose uncle Tommy was Vick's high school coach, worked at the Delta counter at Norfolk International Airport. One day in 2002, Charlie asked the TSA agent if Vick could skip the security line. The agent said no, so Charlie slipped Vick through a back door and was caught. Before Charlie could be fired, though, Vick said, "Look, come work for me. I'll take care of you." Charlie quit and was so excited to be Vick's personal assistant that he commuted between Vick in Atlanta and his wife, Vanessa, in Virginia. Vick paid Charlie in cash and in gifts, like new rims. Anything that needed to be done, Charlie did.

INSIDE
Melissa GoldenVick's now-fiancee, Kijafa Frink, moved to Leavenworth to be closer to Vick.

Well, almost anything. Charlie was Vick's only posse member who wasn't involved with Bad Newz Kennels. While Vick attended fights, Charlie stayed home with Vanessa. In spring 2007, Vick confessed to Charlie how bad it would be if "this stuff went down." But Vick didn't quit. He knew dogfighting was illegal; he just didn't believe it was so wrong. After police raided Bad Newz Kennels but before the arrest, Vick transferred $1.1 million into Charlie's bank account so he could pay the bills and support Vick's mother, Brenda, brother Marcus, girlfriend Kijafa Frink and their two daughters, Jada and London, a newborn. Charlie then drove Vick to jail, slowly as he could. When Vick exited the car, Jada crawled out the window, screaming, "I want my daddy! Daddy, please come back!" Kijafa pulled Jada back inside, which left Charlie to be the last one to hug Vick before he was booked. Charlie didn't let go until Vick was pulled away.

Now, sitting opposite Charlie at Leavenworth, Vick rubs his face. He's irritated. It's 11 a.m., and he's barely slept. Vick points Charlie to a vending machine in the lounge, past a red line that inmates aren't permitted to cross. "You got any change?" Vick asks. Charlie fishes out a few quarters and returns with a microwave cheeseburger and a Sprite.

Charlie says he and Kijafa are looking for a rental near Leavenworth with a big basement because Charlie's scared of tornadoes. Their plan is to trade shifts every two weeks. There are instances in the months to come when Kijafa and Charlie's visits will overlap. To pass time, they'll watch movies or eat tater tots at Sonic or tell funny stories about Mike -- like the time when, as a kid, he Krazy-Glued one of his eyelids shut. Telling stories doesn't always help, though. Kijafa cries thinking that her kids are growing up without a present father. She's scared that intruders hide inside her home, so she often asks Charlie to search it before she enters, something he doesn't tell Vick about when he visits. Charlie doesn't complain to him either about leaving his family to tend to Mike's.

During visits from Charlie and Kijafa, Vick never apologizes for the mess he's heaped on them, doesn't really say thanks. But that's the Mike they know; he can be self-absorbed. Vick just tells them to "hang in there," never realizing that he's not the only one who must survive Leavenworth.

About a month after that first visit from Charlie, Kijafa's phone rings. It's Mike. His voice is muddled, but his words are fast, the way he gets when he's angry. He starts talking about Leavenworth's drug-rehab program. "I didn't get in," he says. He's furious. The entire reason for transferring from Virginia was to get into the program, leave prison early and sign with a team for off-season workouts. Now he's stuck in Kansas, a thousand miles from his extended family and friends, living in those damn barracks. "Call my lawyer," he tells Kijafa.

She dials Vick's attorney, Billy Martin in Washington, D.C., who says he'll look into it. Martin calls the Feds repeatedly over the next few days and finally gets an answer: Vick won't be admitted for reasons the Feds don't divulge. A week later, Kijafa visits Vick, and they sit in a nook in the lounge, away from sight. He's slouched and angry. But he says, "I've got to let it go."


APRIL 2008, 14 MONTHS TO GO
Vick enters the TV room to watch the NFL draft. He's still under contract with the Falcons until 2009 and occasionally trades letters with the owner, Arthur Blank. He hopes to return to the team; the Falcons, however, are working to trade his rights. When he sits down, the draft is already an hour old. The Falcons held the third overall pick, so he asks another inmate, "Who did the Falcons take?"

"Matt Ryan."

Silence. The guys look at him. Vick's been fired, in front of everybody. His face stiffens, trying to hide his humiliation. He stares blankly at the screen for as long as he can, an attempt to prove that he's unaffected. He finally gives up around 2 p.m., leaving the others so he can call his mother on her birthday. He fakes a cheery voice. "Happy birthday, Mom," he says. Brenda changes the subject too quickly. "I got something to tell you," she says.

"What happened, Mom?"

"Grandma had a stroke."

Vick had been afraid that Caletha Vick would die while he was in prison. She'd suffered from dementia for years and was in poor health. Hours before Vick surrendered to authorities, he sat next to Caletha, not sure what to say. If he told her where he was going, he worried she'd have a heart attack. So he said he was off to training camp and kissed her goodbye. Vick later learned that after he left, Caletha turned to Brenda and said, "He said he's going to camp. But he's going to jail."

Five days later, Caletha dies. Vick requests permission to attend her funeral, but officials tell him that funeral visits are permitted only for the deaths of immediate family members. And that's when it hits him, harder than all the other times before this: Man, I really f--ed up. He is an embarrassment to himself and his family, a tainted man who can't even pay respects to those who loved him. He opens his journal, considers an entry. Screw it. He tosses it in the trash.


JUNE 2008, 12 MONTHS TO GO.
Vick plays in a basketball game, part of a prison-organized tournament. When his team wins, another inmate accuses Vick of paying off the refs. He tries to shake him off, but the inmate, in front of all the others, yells "F-- you!" over and over. Vick's prepared himself to walk away from a confrontation like this, but now, in the moment, it's not so easy. He figures if he ignores this guy, he'll be branded as weak.

"I'm a grown man," Vick snaps. "You're not talking to me that way."

"What do you want to do?" the guy says. "You got more to lose than me."

"I'm in the same position you're in," Vick says.

They stare at each other for a moment, then Vick lunges. But before he can swing, another inmate grabs him and pulls him back, reminding him, "Vick, you can't do this!"

Vick backs off and looks at the man who saved him from the fight, from perhaps a transfer to another prison, coupled with a longer sentence that would have kept him out of football another year. It's Dink, his floor-mopping companion.

In every prison, there's a loyalty among inmates that Vick had resisted, a pact forged by their common circumstances. Vick realizes at this moment that with these guys, he'll forever be a part of their lives. Over time, silent games of chess become small talk. Small talk leads to deeper conversations. Vick finds many other inmates candid. Genuine. Honest. Loyal. Smart. They read all day, inspiring Vick to read more too. Dink is easiest to talk to; he and Vick can chat all night. Another inmate, Dino from Chicago, is so upbeat he can always make Vick laugh. But they all talk about how Vick shouldn't be here, how he's a victim of his own celebrity. Vick agrees.

He watches football with the guys every Sunday of the 2008 season. He tries to teach them the game. He describes why a receiver runs a particular route and why a linebacker shoots the C gap. But inmates argue each point -- everyone's an expert, even in prison -- and Vick gives up on the tutorials. After mopping floors at night, he watches highlights on TV, completely disgusted by what he's lost.

He had to declare bankruptcy in July. By the end of the year, Charlie is forced to relinquish Vick's boats and cars and what's left of the $1.1 million. A bankruptcy committee permits payments only to Vick's girlfriend and mother. Short on money, Charlie starts driving buses. Vick's brother Marcus paints boats. Vick's not only wrecked his life; he's wrecked his family's too. His daughters used to cry after visiting him. Now they don't, and Vick can't decide which hurts worse. This isn't the man he promised Kijafa he'd be.

He comes to know that he must do more than survive Leavenworth. He must learn from it. So now, when the guys tell Vick that he shouldn't be here, he doesn't indulge them. He looks them in the eye and says, "You're wrong."


FEBRUARY 2009, FOUR MONTHS TO GO.
The weeks pass until it's Super Bowl Sunday. The Cardinals and Steelers are set to kick off in a few hours when Vick receives word of an unexpected visitor: Kynan Forney, his former right guard in Atlanta. Both were drafted in 2001: Vick first overall, Forney 219th. Forney was eager to buddy up to Vick, like vintage guard-quarterback relationships go. But Vick always put him off, just like he put off every other lineman, just like he put off most teammates.

Forney hadn't talked to Vick since his arrest. Worried that nobody else would make the trip, Forney decided to see his former quarterback.

INSIDE
Chris StanfordKynan Forney blocked for Vick in Atlanta and was one of the few teammates to visit him in prison.

Vick enters the visitors lounge. Wow, he's cut, Forney thinks. Shoulders bigger, stomach leaner. "Man, you look good!" he says. Vick tells him he's been doing a lot of push-ups and sit-ups recently. Forney rises for the vending machines, and Vick follows until he hits the red line. With a hopeful look he says, "I can't cross."

"Yo, why you saying things sideways?" Forney asks. "If you want something, just tell me!"

Vick tiptoes the line as if trying to stay inbounds. He selects chili cheese Fritos and an iced tea, and as he waits, someone asks him for an autograph. He signs it agreeably, then sits down at one of the tables with Forney, munching on his chips. After a few minutes of small talk, Vick blurts out, "I should have been watching tape."

"What do you mean?"

"I was doing just enough, going off instincts. We could have been much more dangerous. I'm one of the best quarterbacks in the game with this skill set, and I'm in prison."

Forney is shocked but doesn't show it. Vick's just figuring this out? Maybe he should have told Vick to study more, but no, it was understood in the Falcons' locker room that Vick's 90 percent was better than most quarterbacks' 100 percent. Next time, Vick says with an intensity that Forney never saw in Atlanta, he'll be a better teammate.


MAY 20, 2009, 17 HOURS TO GO.
At 11 a.m., guards approach Vick's bunk. "You, Mr. Vick, come stand in the corner." What the hell? I didn't do nothing, Vick thinks. One of the guards says, "You're leaving tomorrow at 4:30 a.m."

Vick is leaving prison early for good behavior. He'll be released in the middle of the night to avoid cameras, the guards inform him. Ecstatic, he calls Kijafa and tells her to be at the gates. "You sure?" she says. Yeah, he's sure. Vick returns to his bunk and unzips a green bag to pack. Inmates had advised him to leave everything from prison, so Vick ditches his khaki shirt and pants, shoes and socks. But he doesn't want to forget this place either. He packs some prison underwear and T-shirts.

That night, he lies awake, too excited to sleep, until the guards arrive predawn, right on time. The doors open and he exits, wearing an untucked white T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers with untied laces. He embraces Kijafa. She clutches his hand, already walking ahead of him and telling him to hurry, as if it's an escape.

A black Chrysler sits in the parking lot. Kijafa drives away while Vick leans against the window, looking at places both familiar and foreign -- the yellow of a McDonald's sign, the orange of a Hardee's, the halogen glow of a gas station. They check into a hotel. Vick runs his hands along the walls of the room, just to feel something other than concrete.

A few hours later, in the midmorning sun, they're back on the road. The states along I-70 slip into each other: Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, then Indiana. Vick sees a grassy stretch of land in some forgotten rural county that's covered with swaying knee-high grass. He asks Kijafa to pull the car over, and they walk out into the field. The horizon goes on forever, which is both inspiring and comforting to him. Kijafa senses what he's thinking.

"Want land like this?" she asks.

"I'd get 150 acres," he says, then adds with a scoff, "Just need to make sure we can afford it."

Vick stands there a minute longer, listening to the whoosh of passing cars. The dull panic that he felt outside the prison, as if not another moment of his life could be wasted, falls away. Back in the car, he's calm, finally -- every mile taking him farther away from one place and closer to another.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can found on Twitter here.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.