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A remorseful Michael Vick pleads guilty, calls dogfighting a 'terrible thing'
Michael Vick - photo by Associated Press

     RICHMOND, Va. - First, Michael Vick apologized to all the people he lied to. NFL commissioner Roger     Goodell. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Coach Bobby Petrino. His teammates.

"I was not honest and forthright in our discussions," the star quarterback said Monday, somber and deliberate and not speaking from notes.

Then he apologized to "all the young kids out there for my immature acts."

"I need to grow up," he added.

And so began a public act of contrition from Vick, who pleaded guilty to a federal dogfighting charge and then stood behind a podium to say his job now was "bettering Michael Vick the person, not the football player."

There he was, a QB so deft and nimble he pulled off any number of amazing scrambles on the field. Now he was scrambling to save himself and his football future because of his role in a gruesome dogfighting ring.

Saying he was speaking "from the heart," Vick said he took full responsibility for his actions.

"Dogfighting is a terrible thing, and I did reject it," he said.

Acceptance of responsibility is one of the factors U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson will consider in handing down Vick's sentence Dec. 10. The federal sentencing guideline range is projected at a year to 18 months, but Hudson can impose up to the five-year maximum.

Vick was suspended indefinitely by the NFL after his written plea agreement was filed in court Friday.

"So I got a lot of down time, a lot of time to think about my actions and what I've done and how to make Michael Vick a better person," said Vick, who grew up in Newport News.

"I will redeem myself. I have to," he vowed.

In Atlanta, the Falcons said they would not cut Vick immediately because of salary-cap issues. The team intends to pursue the $22 million in bonus money that he already received in a $130 million contract signed in 2004.

"We cannot tell you today that Michael is cut from the team," Blank said. "Cutting him today may feel better emotionally for us and many of our fans. But it's not in the long-term best interests of our franchise."

Vick, who took no questions after his first public statement about the dogfighting ring, said little in court. With family members, including his brother and mother, watching from the front row of the packed courtroom, Vick stood flanked by two of his five lawyers and softly answered "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to Hudson's questions.

The plea was accepted by Hudson, who asked: "Are you entering the plea of guilty to a conspiracy charge because you are in fact guilty?"

Vick answered yes, and Hudson emphasized his broad latitude in sentencing.

"You're taking your chances here. You'll have to live with whatever decision I make," he said.

U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said a first-time offender ordinarily might receive no jail time for the dogfighting conspiracy.

"We thought, however, that the conduct in this conspiracy was heinous, cruel and inhumane," he said.

Blank and general manager Rich McKay refused to say whether Vick would ever play for the Falcons again, though their reluctance to cut ties with the quarterback is related more to complicated legal issues than any willingness to take him back. They've already sent a "demand letter" to Vick saying they will attempt to recoup the bonus money he was paid.

"We realize that this situation has tarnished our franchise," Blank said. "We've heard from fans who are embarrassed to wear the No. 7 jersey now. We cannot undo what's been done. But we can and we will recover from this."

The Falcons will receive a $6 million cap credit for Vick's salary this year since he's been suspended without pay. They are still on the hook for about $22 million in prorated bonus obligations spread out over this season and the next two. Any bonus money that is returned by Vick will be credited to Atlanta's cap number.

"We feel very comfortable that we have plenty of room going forward in which to field a competitive team," McKay said.

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, both members of the Falcons' board, attended the news conference at Blank's corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

"I've never seen someone who had so much ability and has fallen so far," Aaron said. "It's not what is going to happen as far as his football career is concerned. It's just him as a man, as a human being, being able to get his life back."

Asked if he expected Vick to return to the Falcons some day, Aaron replied, "I hope so."

Outside the courthouse, a contingent of Vick supporters sang "This Little Light of Mine" and other hymns, while holding signs that said "We Love You" and urged Vick to seek support in religion. Steven Terry, pastor of Deliverance Tabernacle Church in the Tidewater area, organized the group of at least two dozen supporters.

"The scripture is clear _ he that's without sin, cast the first stone," he said.

A few dozen animal-rights protesters also stood outside the courthouse, some holding signs saying "Prosecute All Dogfighters."

In his written plea, Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls and supplying money for gambling on the fights. He said he did not personally place any bets or share in any winnings, but merely associating with gambling can result in a lifetime ban under the league's personal conduct policy.

Three Vick co-defendants who previously pleaded guilty said Vick bankrolled the enterprise, and two of them said Vick participated in executing dogs that were not vicious enough in testing. The three had agreed to testify against Vick had the case gone to trial.

The case began in late April when authorities conducting a drug investigation of Vick's cousin raided the former Virginia Tech star's rural Surry County property and seized dozens of dogs, some injured, and equipment commonly used in dogfighting.

A federal indictment issued in July charged Vick, Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach, Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Tony Taylor of Hampton with an interstate dogfighting conspiracy. Vick initially denied any involvement, and all four men pleaded innocent. Taylor was the first to change his plea to guilty; Phillips and Peace soon followed.

The gruesome details outlined in the indictment _ dogs were hanged, drowned and electrocuted _ fueled a public backlash against Vick and cost him several lucrative endorsement deals, even before he agreed to plead guilty.

The Falcons were set to play an exhibition game at home against the Cincinnati Bengals later Monday. This will be the first chance for the team to see what effect Vick's case has on attendance at the Georgia Dome. Vick wears the biggest-selling jersey in team history and is given much credit for the team's 51 consecutive sellouts.

"We're putting the emotions, the shock, the disappointment, the anger and the once-held hope that this was not true behind us," Blank said. "I assure you we'll do all we possibly can to make this season a success."