The sound you hear, that rolling thunder in the distance, is the world running away from Michael Vick.
His former Atlanta Falcons teammates refer to him in the past tense. Nike and Reebok have sped far down the interstate, their endorsement dollars tucked away in the trunk. His countless fans have put away his No. 7 jersey, perhaps for good. Ask an NFL stuffed shirt about Michael Vick and he'll answer, "Michael who?"
And his friends, you ask? They cut their own deals and were lined up to testify against him.
Vick, not too long ago an NFL hero, is radioactive. Worse for him, he's also going to do some hard time. An elevator at the top of the Empire State Building doesn't drop as fast. His fall is sad, sordid and cautionary.
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And it's not all Vick's fault.
I have no motivation for making excuses for Vick. He had it all -- fame, wealth and respect -- and trifled it away by his own hand. You could make worse choices in life, though I'm challenged to identify them.
Let's see: I've signed a $130 million contract and I'm the toast of Atlanta and the marketing brand of an entire league. The experts say I'm revolutionizing the quarterback position. But this is not floating my boat. I think I'll bankroll a dogfighting kennel.
As forks in the road go, this one featured stark signage: 1. Proceed here. You'll be happy forever, or 2. If you tread this path, you've left your brain on the 20-yard line.
Vick chose wrong, about 180 degrees wrong. He's expected to plead guilty Monday to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge, which reportedly will imprison him from one to five years, depending on the judge's call. Either he wasn't told dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states, or the sickening pull of canine bloodsport was just too strong. He'll deserve everything he gets.
But what does this say about the shoe companies which saw Vick as a walking money tree or a league eager to cash in on Vick's edgy image? They bestowed star power on a young man who wasn't equipped to carry such baggage.
Vick's story, the kid who rose from nothing to NFL hero worship, was too juicy and too American for Madison Avenue to ignore. He could run faster than an F16 and could throw the football through the nearest wall. After memorable seasons at Virginia Tech, he became the first black quarterback selected as the first pick of the NFL Draft. Then he transformed the Falcons, one of the league's more forlorn franchises, into a major player.
Again, the popular question: How could he toss it all away?
In today's it-must-happen-now world, we sometimes anoint our heroes and celebrities before we even check with them. For sure, Vick wouldn't have said "no" to idolatry and trainloads of cash but, like many sports stars, he probably hasn't heard "no" since second grade. He truly believed he was bulletproof or, worse, he thought dogs dueling nearly to the death was little more than a grisly pastime.
Clearly, he wasn't prepared for the avalanche that football poured over him. Tiger Woods was ready for society's rush. So was Peyton Manning. Vick was not.
That he could articulate all the right words -- thereby receiving an OK from the money holders -- eventually made it worse. As it turned out, Vick either didn't heed the advice he desperately needed or simply rejected it.
All told, his failure must be shared, at least in part, by the vainglorious institutions which surrounded him.
Vick will have plenty of time to rethink his wrong choices. I hope he doesn't attribute his downfall to the "subculture" his sympathizers constantly prop up like some sort of alibi. Dogfighting is not a "subculture." It's cruel and depraved animal abuse, the kind of practice that shouldn't belong on the list of human reaction. May dogfighting's demise stem from this episode.
I also hope Vick, 27, is allowed a second chance in football if he's still able post-prison. For that door to reopen, however, he must not only act contrite, he must be contrite.
Because right now, not even Vick can catch up to the world racing away from him.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.