RICHMOND - Michael Vick only recently owned up to executing pit bulls, but it was too late for his sentencing judge, who threw the book at the fallen NFL star yesterday.
US District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson sentenced the suspended Falcons quarterback to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation - a term at least five months longer than what Vick would have received had he been truthful.
Hudson found that Vick had lied to federal authorities. After pleading guilty in August, Vick continued to contend that others killed pit bulls that did not test well as fighting dogs. But in October, after being grilled by an FBI agent for five hours, Vick finally spilled the truth that he "hung" a dog.
During that interview an FBI polygrapher found Vick was being deceptive in denying he killed dogs. After Vick's lawyer, Billy Martin, was told this, he asked Vick about the failed test. At that moment, Martin told Hudson, Vick broke down.
"I did it all," Vick said, Martin related. "I did everything. If you need me to say more, I'll say more."
At the close of the 45-minute sentencing hearing, Vick apologized to the court and his family members, who along with other supporters occupied most of two rows in the packed courtroom.
Before the hearing started, Michael Vick's brother, Marcus Vick, draped his right arm around their mother and comforted her as she wept.
"You need to apologize to the millions of young people who looked up to you," Hudson said sternly, reminding Vick of the fans he singled out when he pleaded guilty in August.
"Yes, sir," answered Vick, who arrived in court wearing the black-and-white striped prison uniform he was issued when he voluntarily surrendered Nov. 19 to begin serving his sentence early.
Although there is no parole in the federal system, with time off for good behavior Vick could be released in the summer of 2009.
In a plea agreement, Vick admitted bankrolling the dogfighting ring on his 15-acre property in rural Virginia. He admitted providing money for bets on the fights but said he never shared in any winnings.
Hudson found that Vick had not fully accepted responsibility for all he had done as part of Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting organization that was run with three co-defendants, out of property Vick owned in Surry County. Vick also played a major role by "promoting, funding, and facilitating this cruel and inhumane sporting activity," the judge said.
Rarely has such a popular sports star fallen so fast and so hard. A year ago, Vick was the NFL's highest-paid player, the league's most electrifying quarterback, and the face of the Falcons franchise. Vick was suspended without pay by the NFL and lost all his lucrative endorsement deals.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked after the ruling if Vick should play again.
"That's a determination we'll make later on," he told the Associated Press.
Will Goodell lift Vick's indefinite suspension? How many seasons will the quarterback miss beyond this year and next, which are a given? Will another team be willing to take a chance on Vick? If he does get back on the field, will he still be the same electrifying player? Will he even be a quarterback?
"No one knows," said Dan Reeves, who was Vick's first pro coach with the Falcons. "A lot depends on him and what he does with these next two years. Either he comes out a better person or he comes out a bitter person."
Vick would be 30 years old upon his release from prison - he must serve 85 percent of his sentence - normally when quarterbacks are in the prime of their careers.
It's likely, however, that some teams will want to look at Vick at other positions.
"Your skills erode when you're away from something for three years," said Gil Brandt, who helped assemble the Dallas Cowboys' dynasty. "I think that playing quarterback is a position where you need all of the skills that you can get."
One thing seems certain: Vick won't get his second chance with the Falcons. The team kept him on the roster only while it pursues efforts to recover nearly $20 million in bonus money. The Falcons already won the first round of the legal fight, which now has gone to a federal judge in Minnesota.
Vick's estimated financial losses have reached $142 million, including $71 million in Falcons salary, $50 million in endorsement income, and nearly $20 million in previously paid bonuses.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of 18 months to two years. While prosecutors asked for a sentence on the high end, defense attorney Lawrence Woodward asked for leniency, noting his client's previously clean record despite growing up in a rough area in Newport News, Va.
But in addition to initially lying about his role in killing dogs, Vick tested positive for marijuana use in violation of the terms set for his release - then gave conflicting accounts about when he used the drug, Hudson noted.
He also said Vick's conflicting stories about drug use and his role in killing dogs stemmed from frustration with his interrogators and a desire to please people by telling them what he thinks they want to hear.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.