NEWS- 'God loves Michael': Vick pleads guilty amid church supporters
After appearing in federal court in Richmond earlier this week to plead guilty to charges that he financed and operated an illegal dogfighting ring, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick told reporters, "Through this situation, I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness, and turned my life over to God."
While this message might have come as a surprise to those more used to seeing Vick elude tacklers than allude to a higher power, "God loves Michael" was the rallying cry of dozens of supporters who lined the barricades on Monday, August 28 along Main Street across the street from the Lewis F. Powell Courthouse.
In the hours before Vick's scheduled 10:30am appearance, it looked as though his detractors would far outnumber his supporters, as they had a month earlier at his arraignment. Once again, the Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had organized a group of protesters, though their numbers were noticeably smaller than they had been when Vick was still professing his innocence.
"Now that he's pleading guilty and signed off on a statement of facts, some people think this is covered," explained Caleb Wheeldon, PETA's youth outreach coordinator.
But although the scene surrounding Vick's second day in court initially seemed relatively subdued, Monday morning quickly began to feel more like Sunday morning. Forty minutes before Vick was due to make his appearance, the first busload of parishioners from Chesapeake's Tabernacle Deliverance Church arrived.
One by one they processed, wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with the 23rd Psalm, the words "God forgives. How about you?" and a drawing of Vick deep in prayer, receiving an angel's blessing. They sang hymns and carried handmade signs with messages like "We've got your backfield," "Mike is the new Superman," and "Got Jesus?" Some even brought extras for passersby who wanted to show their support for the former Virginia Tech standout. Altogether, this flock's size equaled that of PETA's and succeeded in drowning out the animal rights activists' message.
While Vick was delivering a message of contrition and of finding Jesus, a block south of the courthouse in Richmond's Omni hotel, Tabernacle Deliverance pastor Steven Terry was explaining why his congregation put together their trip.
"We see the injustice, and we can't just sit back and let things happen," said Terry, noting that Newport News native Vick has attended his services in the past.
"The media has focused on every detail, and with all the negativity surrounding him, his case was dead on arrival," Terry said. "You would think it was the president who had committed a wrong with all this attention."
With literally dozens of national news outlets in attendance, Terry's group showed the kind of media savvy more associated with political campaigns than prayer circles. For instance, when approached by reporters, no individual member of the "God squad" would comment for the record, instead instructing questioners to read the t-shirts and signs and speak with Terry.
"They look like him," Terry said of his predominantly African American congregants. "We're here to let him know we're not going to abandon him."
PETA, too, maintained an eye on public relations.
"He's got a unique opportunity to educate the public that this is cruel, barbaric, and illegal, and PETA would be more than willing to work with Michael Vick to get the word out," said Wheeldon. "He can give us a call anytime."
Apparently, not all of the anti-Vick crowd felt eager to join hands. As Vick exited the courthouse where so many were testifying to his salvation, one man holding a PETA sign repeatedly exhorted the newly convicted felon to "burn in hell!"
But the crowd's emotion was not reserved just for the embattled quarterback. One man, University of Richmond third-year law student Eric Demetriades, carried a sign with the words "We love you, Judge Hudson!"– a tribute to the presiding judge, Henry Hudson.
"He was my professor for Scientific Evidence," explained Demetriades. "He was the best adjunct professor I've had."
In court, Judge Hudson advised Vick that while he will take into consideration the prosecution's recommended sentence of 12-18 months, he's not bound by it. According to Demetriades, the embattled quarterback should take that reminder seriously when he's sentenced on December 10.
"As soon as I heard he was the judge, I thought, 'I guess Vick's going to spend some time in jail,'" Demetriades said. "When it came to grading exams, he was a pit bull."