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Monday, August 27, 2007
Vick supporters loud and clear outside courthouse

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- "You should pray," a woman in a Michael Vick T-shirt told Brigitte Picard.

Picard was holding up a sign that said, "YOUR GOOD NAME … DOGKILLER." She'd gotten up early, driven four hours, just to let her two dogs know that "Mommy is here for them." She was in the middle of a sentence as hallelujahs and Bible music flowed about a block down.

She was outnumbered.

On a bizarre day that was a cross between sporting event and religious revival, Michael Vick did what was expected -- he pleaded guilty Monday to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge. What wasn't expected, at least in the animal-rights circles, was that Vick's supporters would at least temporarily drown out four months of outrage.

Michael Vick
Supporters for Michael Vick chant outside federal court Monday in Richmond, Va.
As his gray Range Rover rolled up Main Street at 10:19 a.m., Vick was greeted with cheers and women jumping up and down and signs that said, "Ookie! We love you!" After he walked up a ramp through the double doors that led to the courthouse, his supporters sang, "We Shall Overcome," and chanted, "We love Mike."

It was almost like a football game. Two sides lined up on opposite ends of a stretch of yellow barricades across the street from the courthouse. On 10th Street stood the animal-rights people. Near 11th were the Vick supporters. And Vick's group was considerably more vocal.

About 200 of them boarded a bus early Monday morning in Newport News, Va., which is Vick's hometown. Two of them were pastors from churches they say Vick attends. Domeka Kelley, the pastor of Psalms Ministry, says Vick donated $317,000 to build a new church. Kelley says Vick did it before the dogfighting charges.

"The Michael Vick we know is not the Michael Vick the media has portrayed," Kelley said. "He's a man who loves God.

"This has hurt him beyond measure."

The atmosphere was much different than the last time Vick was in court in July. Thousands lined up along Main Street to wildly boo and protest Vick. But at one point Monday morning, the people working the event -- the media and the police on horses, motorcycles and bikes -- outnumbered the public. About 600 showed up by late morning.

Twenty-five TV trucks were lined up on the road in the back of the courthouse just before midnight Sunday. Under a full moon, the only sounds were the hum of the engines and the chatter of a few night owls preparing Monday's shows.

A police officer working the scene said that the animal-rights activists were probably resting up for the morning. But some of them never came.

There was the scruffy-faced guy who started barking when a young man held up a pro-Vick sign that said, "Don't listen to them haters." There were the legions of PETA folks who gripped their posters of a mangled dog, and the man with the Chihuahua and a T-shirt that said, "My dog hates Michael Vick."

Animal rights activists
Animal-rights activists protest before Vick's arrival for his court appearance Monday.
PETA spokesman Dan Shannon said some of the silence was by choice. He asked his people to be quiet Monday out of respect for the court setting. Some listened; some didn't.

"I think the outrage is there," Shannon said. "You look at any of the Web sites and some of the calls on the sports radio shows … People are just as outraged now as they have been. It's just taken a different form."

For the animal supporters, Monday took on an anticlimactic form. It had been a week since the announcement that Vick would plead guilty. The fighting, at least in this case, was basically over.

But it might have just started for Vick, the Falcons' suspended quarterback.

Vick appeared to acknowledge his supporters when he walked out of the courthouse, flanked by his attorneys, dressed in a dark blue suit and crisp white shirt. He glanced across the street and appeared to nod slightly.

The crowd followed him down to 12th Street, where Vick gave a statement to the media at the Omni Hotel. Police officers told both sides they couldn't go into the conference room, which was stuffed with reporters.

Vick entered a side door and stepped up to the microphones shortly after 11:30 a.m. He had a small slip of paper tucked away in his hand and took a deep breath before he spoke.

He said he acted immaturely. He said he took full responsibility for his actions and had found Jesus.

"I will redeem myself," Vick said. "I have to."

He walked to the door near the corner, where his lawyers in dark suits were listening. He hugged a person who appeared to be part of his legal team.

Then the gray Range Rover was gone, while his fans still stood outside the hotel waiting, near the PETA people and the businessmen and the gawkers. On Monday, they all stood on different sides.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.