Hometown residents see different side of Vick

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - To prosecutors, NFL star Michael Vick is a ruthless dogfighting operator.

To people living in the poor, crime-ridden neighborhood where Vick grew up, he is a savior of sorts who provides school supplies and athletic uniforms to local kids and buys air conditioners for housing-project residents suffering through Virginia's sweltering summers.

And that is why they're sure that 'Ookie,' as he's known to childhood pals, is innocent.

'He's a good person. He's making a difference in the community,' Misha Brown said Tuesday as she dropped off her children at the same Boys & Girls Club where the 27-year-old Vick honed the athletic skills that made him the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft in 2001.

She's never met the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, but she says she'd like to so she can thank him. Without his generosity, her children and others in the East End neighborhood would not have had backpacks and other supplies for school last year, she said.

'There should be more role models like him,' she said.

Vick and three other men are to be arraigned today in federal court in Richmond are accused of a conspiracy involving competitive dogfighting, procuring and training pit bulls for fighting, and conducting the enterprise across state lines. The dogs fought at a property Vick owned in rural Surry County and, the indictment alleges, animals too weak to fight were hanged, drowned, shot to death or electrocuted.

There's no way Vick would be involved in something like that, said 29-year-old Anthony Cypress, who lives in the housing project where Vick was raised and said he used to play pickup basketball with him.

'Michael Vick is a good guy,' Cypress said as he checked on laundry drying on a clothesline among the rows of identical blue and off-white housing units near a shipyard and coal piers.

'I know he loves animals,' Cypress said. 'Why he would throw them in a ring and try to kill them, I don't know.'

Cypress said his 10-year-old son, Christopher, plays football for the Boys & Girls Club wearing a uniform, helmet and cleats provided by Vick. So do many of the other kids at the club, where Vick funds a lot of activities without making a fuss, he said.

The Boys & Girls Club has been so important to Vick that he went there to announce his decision to leave Virginia Tech after playing just two seasons to enter the NFL draft. It was, he said then, the place that helped keep him off the streets.

Vick's mentor there, James 'Poo' Johnson, has known Vick since the football star was 7. He said Vick has often returned to hand out turkeys and gift baskets at the holidays and that when he recently asked Vick to procure athletic equipment from Nike for a club tournament, Vick obliged.

'He's being portrayed now sort of like a monster, but that's not him,' said Johnson, now assistant chief executive officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula, said in a telephone interview. 'I know his heart.'

Travis Baptist, who said he knows Vick from the neighborhood, declared 'Ookie is innocent!' when asked about the charges.

Vick has never forgotten his roots since becoming wealthy and famous, Baptist said. He's known for helping people out, even buying air conditioner window units for some housing-project residents, the 20-year-old Baptist said as he pointed out Vick's former home.

Vick may be a victim of his own loyalty to his old neighborhood, Baptist said. The city is nicknamed 'Bad Newz,' the name of the kennel Vick is accused of operating.

'He's just caught up with dudes, by still being good to the people in his neighborhood, hanging around his little team, his group of guys he likes to be around,' Baptist said.

Vick said when the investigation started that he knew nothing about dogfighting, and he blamed friends and relatives for abusing his generosity. Last week, Dan Reeves, Vick's first NFL coach, said Vick's friends seem to be the same ones he had a child.

Frank Beamer, who coached Vick at Virginia Tech, said he thinks Vick understands 'he probably needs to separate from some people and that's hard for him to do.'

'That's just not in his nature to separate,' Beamer said before Vick was indicted on July 17. 'It's his nature to take care of and to care for.'

Jimmie Espich, who taught Vick English at Warwick High School, remembered him as a quiet, self-contained student with a sunny personality who earned mostly Bs.

'Michael had a dignity about him,' Espich said in a telephone interview.