Before training camp started in July, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick talked to TIME in a wide-ranging conversation about his new book Finally Free, his time in prison, the safety of football and his expectations for the coming season. The Eagles open their 2012 campaign on Sunday with a road game against the Cleveland Browns. Here are video and excerpts from the interview:
Why write a book now?
I want to let the past be the past and let the future be the future and just move forward. It tells my life from a kid and every circumstance that I went through, everything that was controversial, everything that was publicized.
You saw your first dogfight when you were 8 years old. Describe what that was like.
I reveal in detail when I first saw my first dogfight, how I felt, the emotion that was going through me. Walking away from it, saying to myself, ‘Everybody was around. Nobody said anything. The police didn’t stop it.’ So I had no concerns about the consequences. That kind of led to us not being involved in it every day but still doing it from time to time. And as I grew older, it just got bigger and bigger and out of control.
You’re open about your time in prison. You say your prison number is embedded in your mind. Can you say, right now, what your number was?
33765183 was my number. I’ll never forget it. I still have my shirt, still have my pants, still have my boots, as a constant reminder to stay on the right track.
Why is it so stuck in your mind?
It’s so stuck in my mind because I spent so much time in prison. I spent almost 556 days away from my family, away from my loved ones. Being told when to eat, being told when to go to sleep, being told when to get up and go to work. Not having my freedom, not being able to do things at my discretion. If you wind up in prison, you lose so much that you don’t realize it till you’re actually there in the present.
Was your punishment fair?
I think my punishment was fair.
I served two years in prison. I spent all of my time on probation, which is not the norm. I feel like that time changed me, and I think prison is structured to rehabilitate. I certainly came out a rehabilitated man.
In the book, you talk about how, on your drive home from prison, you seized the opportunity to eat foods you weren’t able to in prison. You went to Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s. Did you put on like 30 lb. on that trip home?
Absolutely. I came home, and I was like 225 lb. And when I got back on the football field, as one of the best athletes in the world, I felt like it wasn’t going to affect me. I felt like I was gonna be able to go out into the field and pick up where I left off. But you know, I got a rude awakening. I got teased by my friends so much. I knew I wasn’t back.
After prison, you partnered with the Humane Society to spread awareness of the dangers of dogfighting. Can you talk about some of that work?
Partnering up with the Humane Society was a goal that I set when I was in prison. I just wanted to make amends for what I had done. I wanted to bring an end to dogfighting, I wanted to be a direct advocate within the program, and they made me their lead guy. And I accepted that role and that responsibility. Even to this day, even when I don’t have to do it — if [Humane Society president] Wayne Pacelle called me and wanted to do an event, I’m there.
There’s a certain segment of the population that will probably never forgive you. What’s your message to those folks?
You know, my message to the people who will never forgive me is, Read my book to create a better understanding of who I am as a person, my background. I’m not making any excuses, just the origin of where I come from. And try to put that in perspective. I’m not asking you to say that it wasn’t wrong or that the outcome shouldn’t have been what it was, as far as the verdict and my sins. But you know, just have a little empathy, that’s all. I’ve been able to give back. I’ve been able to face demons that were hard for me and tough. We all have to. We are all not perfect. We are all a work in progress.
What was your lowest moment in prison?
I remember my second week in prison. I mean, every day I cried, I cried and cried and cried. I called my mom and lay in the bed, really like saying to myself, ‘I want my ma.’ Like, one of those things when you’re 5 years old and your mom goes off to the store and you’re with a neighbor that you don’t want to be with. And I just called home so much. I didn’t get my strength until about 2 1/2 weeks in, when I finally realized that I really, really wasn’t going home. When I just really came to the realization that nobody was going to bail me out of this situation.
So last year, you guys were a popular pick for the Super Bowl. Then backup quarterback Vince Young dubbed the Eagles the “Dream Team.” You had big names, free agents. What went wrong last year?
First and foremost, we had a lockout. So everybody underestimated the lockout, including myself. And as world-class NFL athletes, we all feel like we can come back, we won’t lose a step, we won’t miss a beat. In reality, that was a long time to be gone. And you can’t underestimate the power of a workout. You know, I did more speed work than weight lifting, and it was detrimental for my body. Who knows what everybody else did? I had a new position that Coach started late, you know, I had to learn a lot of protection, so it was a lot of learning for everybody. And I think it just wasn’t good at the time.
Given all the news and research that has been coming out about concussions, would you let your children play football?
I would let my son play football. I would explain to him before he steps on the field, you know, what he’s about to get himself into. His mental approach, as far as not going out and being scared to get hit or get hurt. Because that’s when it usually happens. And what he should expect out of himself and what he’s trying to accomplish. So I would still encourage a lot of kids to go out and play the game of football. It’s a great game.
It’s not as bad as it may seem. It’s not dangerous. And you know, the more kids drink milk, the better, stronger bones they’ll have. And the better that, you know, the more they’ll stay on the field.
So I think there’s so many ways to promote being healthy, good health and just having fun. Football is an avenue to keep kids out of trouble, and sometimes we don’t have that. It’s sad because back home, you know, you don’t see too many kids playing football in their backyard no more, and that was like the catalyst for us.
You said football’s not dangerous?
It’s really not.
I think a lot of people play hurt, get hurt because they play scared. And I truly believe that. They play timid. And I did it before. I played timid, and I got my ankle broke. Football is a game of emotions, and one thing I’ve learned is, you can have two or three good weeks, and then two or three weeks later, you don’t have the success you had, and next thing you know you’re a little shell-shocked, doubting yourself. That’s the worst thing that can happen.
I think it gets more intense as you get to the NFL level, maybe so on the collegiate level. But you know, you rarely hear about injuries that just take people out. So I still encourage people to play the game. It’s a fun game.
In the book, you talk about how people suggest that you slide more to protect yourself. Are you going to slide more?
Absolutely, I think I’m gonna slide more this year. Don’t try to get the extra four yards to get the next first down and take a big shot, because that can lead to being out three or four games. I experienced that the last two years, and I want to be accountable for my teammates. I think I owe them this year, you know, to be out there for 16 games, and I pray to God that it happens.
But you talk about not playing scared. Is sliding being timid?
I think that for a quarterback, and what I’ve gone through, I think it’s just being safe and being cautious. I have to be real meticulous about how I move on the field but still at the same time playing with an edge. And I don’t want to take that away from myself, but that’s part of being disciplined.
What lessons can Americans learn from your book and your life story?
What you can learn from my book and my life story is that, you know, first and foremost, don’t become a product of your own environment. Let your environment become a product of you. Don’t get consumed in bad habits and negativity that’s going on around you. You have to be stronger, and each and every day you have to make good decisions and make good judgments. If not, you end up in places that you don’t want to be, asking yourself, ‘Why?’ And that’s the worst. So just be conscious of what’s going on around you.
How do you not become a product of your environment, when there are often so many economic and other barriers and challenges? How do you do that?
You’ve got to set goals. You’ve got be strong. Just be mentally strong enough to say no. And I know it sounds the same as what people around you always preach. But there’s gonna be times when your friends want to go steal a bike or they want to go steal something out of the store or smoke some marijuana or go break into somebody’s house. All the things that you know can lead to you being incarcerated or losing a lot, losing your freedom. You’ve just got to say no. ’Cause everybody’s not going to get a second chance. ’Cause sometimes they give up on you real quick. So try to avoid it at all cost. Try to avoid pointless activities.
Do you see yourself staying with the Humane Society throughout the next 10, 20 years?
Absolutely, because I enjoy it. I have a love and a passion for animals. You know, I want to try to help more animals than I hurt and save a lot of animals.
Any predictions for the NFC East?
I want to make one, but I don’t want to say something that gets me in trouble. Let’s just say it’s gonna be a great year. And the NFC is going to be tough, but I’m looking forward to all the challenges.