SUSSEX, Va. (AP) - Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty Tuesday to a state dogfighting charge, a move that could make him eligible to leave prison early and potentially speed up a return to pro football.
Vick, 28, arrived wearing a gray suit and wrist and ankle shackles, but the restraints were removed by the time he entered his plea. The one-time Atlanta Falcons star also pleaded not guilty to a count of cruelty to animals, but that charge was dropped under his plea deal.
He received a three-year suspended sentence - far less than the maximum of 10 years he could have faced.
"I want to apologize to the court, my family, and to all the kids who looked up to me as a role model," Vick told the judge.
Vick's mother Brenda Boddie, brother Marcus Vick and fiancee Kijafa Frink walked in together and sat together in the front row of the gallery with other family and friends. Vick's mother declined to comment to reporters but Marcus Vick acknowledged the family was glad the ordeal was nearly over.
Vick was stoic throughout the approximately 20-minute hearing. Afterward, he turned to his young daughter and winked.
After the hearing, Surry County Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter approached Vick's mother and hugged her, saying, "At least some of this is over."
Vick already is serving a 23-month sentence in Leavenworth, Kan. on federal charges of bankrolling a dogfighting operation at a home he owned in eastern Virginia's rural Surry County, southeast of Richmond. He also admitted to participating in the killing of several underperforming dogs.
Vick is scheduled for release on July 20, 2009, and will serve three years of probation. His latest plea is important because it resolves the remaining charges against him, which is required under federal law if he is to move into a halfway house.
Vick's agent Joel Segal attended the hearing and afterwardstype:italic; wouldn't talk specifically about a possible return to the NFL, saying only, "Mike takes full responsibility for his actions and is ready to more forward and will let his actions speak for him."
Once the highest paid player in the NFL, Vick appeared about as trim Tuesday as when he entered prison a year ago. His lawyer, Billy Martin, said Vick's legal team hasn't been involved in any preliminary steps to revive the suspended player's career, focusing instead on reuniting him with his family.
"Michael as a human being is clearly somebody that we want to salvage," Martin said. "Michael as a football player is somebody that down the road may get a chance to look again."
The trick may be finding a team ready to take a risk on the former quarterback.
Atlanta still has Vick under contract. But Falcons owner Arthur Blank made clear late last month the three-time Pro Bowl selection won't wear that team's uniform again.
"I hope they're prepared to face the dog lovers of America," Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson said earlier of a team that acquires Vick. "There are going to be a lot of problems. People love their pets, and particularly dogs. There will be protests, people expressing their thoughts - even though he's served his time."
Vick's problems have compounded since his federal conviction in 2007. He's landed in bankruptcy court after losing nearly all of his record-breaking $130 million from a 10-year deal he signed with Atlanta in December 2004.
Nine protesters from the animal rights group PETA stood quietly outside the courthouse before the hearing, holding signs with photographs of bloodied fighting dogs and others that read "Dogfighters repent."
Asked how activists would respond if the NFL takes Vick back, Dan Shannon, assistant director of PETA, said Vick must speak out against dogfighting as someone who "participated in dogfighting and saw it ruin everything he built for himself and take away all his fame, all his fortune, all of his respect."
"If he chooses to do that, that's the only way I think he could ever be seen as any kind of a positive public figure," Shannon said.
Associated Press Writer Dena Potter and AP Sportswriter Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.