Steelers’ Mike Tomlin teaches faith along with football Coaches were ‘the guys that told me right from wrong’ as he grew up without his father

Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.

What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?

Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to a group of men during a ManUp conference breakout session. Tomlin’s coaching method involves encouraging his players to grow personally and spiritually.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.

“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”

Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”

Mike Tomlin (left) is joined onstage by pastor Tunch Ilkin (right), a former Steelers player, as he speaks at the ManUp conference in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.

“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”

Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”

Tomlin (center) poses for a photo with a group of men during a VIP meet-and-greet at the ManUp Pittsburgh conference, which drew about 2,000 people.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.

Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.

“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”

Tomlin has a career regular-season record of 125-66-1 with the Steelers and is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.

“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.

“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”

Tomlin on his coaching style: “I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it.”

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.

Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”

“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”

Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.

“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”

When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”

He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”

Clinton Bridges, 49, of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, asks Tomlin a question during a breakout session at ManUp Pittsburgh. Bridges coaches basketball and expressed his concern about young men swearing.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”

What position would Jesus play, coach?

“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.

“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”

DeMarcus Cousins said Trump needs to ‘get his s–t together’ and other news of the week The Week that was Sept. 25- 29

Monday 09.25.17

A Pittsburgh fire chief said he regrets adding Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to his “list of no good N—–s” on his Facebook page and wants to apologize because “This had nothing to do with my Fire Department” and “My fire department should have never been dragged into this.” Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, very on brand in a leather vest and cowboy hat, pulled a (tiny) gun out during a political rally. Donald Trump Jr. posted a map that supposedly showed an overwhelming number of Americans who supported NFL players standing over kneeling with the caption “where else have I seen this???”; the map was county-level results from the 2016 presidential election. A Texas pastor said NFL players “ought to be thanking God” that they live in a country where they don’t have to worry about “being shot in the head for taking a knee.” New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins, who has the most technical fouls in the league since 2010, said Trump “needs to get his s— together.” Former New England Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, a teammate of convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez for two seasons, said after some New England players knelt during the national anthem on Sunday, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot.” Retired college football coach Lou Holtz, who is white, said he doesn’t understand why black athletes demonstrate during the national anthem because “I’ve been unfairly ticketed. I was given a ticket when I didn’t exceed the speed limit, because I was coaching at one school, and the patrol officer graduated from the other.”

Tuesday 09.26.17

Four assistant basketball coaches from Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and the University of Southern California — which, combined, make more than $300 million in total revenue across all sports and do not pay players — were arrested on federal corruption charges for taking thousands of dollars in bribes to direct college players to certain sports agents and financial advisers. New York Giants owner John Mara, who continually employed a kicker who abused his wife and didn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because of possible fan protest, said he is

very unhappy” that Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. simulated a dog urinating on the field on Sunday. To make room for more terrible sports and Insecure takes, Twitter will increase its famed 140-character limit to 280. Another person left the Trump administration, and another former member of the administration has hired a lawyer. Professional wrestling legend and Wilt Chamberlain rival Ric Flair estimates that he had sex with 10,000 women: “I wish I hadn’t said that because of my grandkids,” Flair said in an upcoming ESPN documentary.

Wednesday 09.27.17

Longtime adult actor Ron Jeremy doubts Flair had relations with that many women: “It’s very difficult to get numbers like that.” Los Angeles Chargers unofficial mascot Boltman said he risked being beaten “like Rodney King” by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after he refused to remove his mask at last weekend’s home game. A bar in Missouri, a state for which the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for people of color, displayed recently purchased NFL jerseys of Marshawn Lynch and Kaepernick as doormats with the two jerseys spelling out “Lynch Kaepernick.” Another airline was caught violently dragging a customer off one of its airplanes. A Madison, Wisconsin, gyro shop worker was charged with “first-degree reckless endangerment … possession of cocaine with intent to deliver and carrying a concealed weapon” after he shot a man at his place of work when the man tried to run off with $1,300 worth of cocaine without paying for it; “Dude shot me in the back,” the “victim” told police. Taken actor Liam Neeson, two weeks after announcing his retirement from action movies because “Guys, I’m 60-f—ing-five,” said he’s not retiring from the genre and that “I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground.” Trump, who was an owner in the USFL, which folded after just three seasons, said the NFL is “going to hell” unless it prohibits players from kneeling during the national anthem. Former action “star” Steven Seagal, currently a resident of Moscow, said demonstrations during the national anthem were both “outrageous” and “disgusting.”

Thursday 09.28.17

Hours after posing an anti-DUI video on Instagram with the hashtag #dontdrinkanddrive, a Los Angeles police officer, under suspicion of driving under the influence, caused a three-car crash that killed three people. Trump, blowing a dog whistle so loud a deaf man could hear it, said NFL owners, some of whom are his “friends,” don’t punish players who kneel during the national anthem because “they are afraid of their players.” During the all-male Presidents Cup tournament, the PGA Tour, still trying to rid its long-held sexist label, held a cook-off among WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of the competitors. Reality TV star Rob Kardashian, per a lawsuit, accused former girlfriend Blac Chyna of smashing his gingerbread house during a December 2016 incident. Just hours after Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson joked that he was glad “that we were with Russell [Athletic]” when the Adidas and college basketball corruption case news broke, Russell Athletic announced it will “transition away from the team uniform business”; Georgia Tech will switch to Adidas in 2018. A Canadian woman who tattooed purple dye into her eyeball may lose her sight in the eye; “I took my eyesight for granted,” the woman said. Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, just piling on at this point, called Trump an “idiot” and a “d—head.” In “it’s about respect for the military” news, the message “go home n—–” was written on the whiteboard of a black cadet at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

Friday 09.29.17

Proving what we already knew, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said teammate Gordon Hayward and coach Brad Stevens “have an unspoken language already.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade said it was not his idea to ride on the back of a banana boat with Gabrielle Union, LeBron James and Chris Paul: “I remember saying, ‘Guys, I didn’t wanna get on there,’ but, you know, peer pressure.” Trump, who aced geography in college, said Puerto Rico is “an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who recently received a presidential pardon after being convicted for essentially racial profiling Latinos, traveled to California to continue his investigation of former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Former NFL player Chad Johnson, who once legally changed his last name to “Ochocinco” because he thought it was Spanish for “85,” compared the NFL’s “whitewashing” of protests during the national anthem to “a goddamn Ice Bucket Challenge.” Third-graders in the Washington, D.C., area said they don’t like Trump because “ever since he was president a lot of bad things have been happening,” “Trump doesn’t like black people and Hillary Clinton does,” and because “he’s orange.” Another person resigned from the Trump administration.

Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke But now I’m starting to understand what it means

White Privilege: (noun). The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.

Monday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., and every one of the overhead office televisions is leading with NFL franchises responding to the 45th president of the United States, who called anthem-protesting players “sons of bitches” last week and implored owners to tell these kneeling men, reality TV-style, “You’re fired!”

Then Gregg Popovich’s cloudy-white visage filled the screen, making me feel like crap.

“We still have no clue of what being born white means,” the coach of the San Antonio Spurs said in the middle of a three-minute, Check Your Privilege, Mr. President, scolding. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

My colleagues, almost all of whom are black, nodded approvingly because Pop “gets it,” and some vowed to become Spurs fans simply because of his comments. I did the same.

But I also had this pang gnawing at me all day and into the night.

The truth: Many well-intentioned white people I know lose their minds when they hear about their “white privilege.” It’s not that we haven’t acknowledged our ancestors’ original sin — the dehumanization of a people, manifested in tragically being able to call another human being “property.” We have.

But fully accepting that the color of our skin benefits us today is often too much to unpack.

When we hear, “Check your privilege,” we feel ostracized from the people we thought shared the common purpose of equality with us. Further, if we are directly confronting racism in our online and physical worlds, we don’t want to hear, “Thanks, but there is no extra credit for doing what is right.”

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

And that gets to dissecting the meaning of privilege — separating the feelings of personal slight from a systemic inequity. Which is flat-out hard. We either a) don’t believe it; b) don’t think we are participants in it; or c) will engage to a point but ultimately decide, “I’m sorry, I don’t share this outlook on the world.”

It was only after hearing Popovich that I realized that we who continue to bullheadedly think that way represent a real obstacle toward achieving this elusive better place we always talk about.

Look, this isn’t something Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett can fix alone, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos couldn’t fix it in 1968. This isn’t something any person of color can change by himself.

This is a difficult white-person-to-white-person conversation that has to happen between white men and women of all classes for any lasting change to occur. Black and brown people already know this. It’s not news to them that we have advantages bestowed at birth that they don’t.

If you can’t accept that white people have it easier, then you will never accept why someone would kneel during the national anthem. And until those two are reconciled, we shouldn’t expect people to stand — especially those most adversely affected by society’s unfair constructs.

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

The display of unity on Sunday, with some NFL owners linking arms with their players, was indeed an act of togetherness. But it was in response to the president crudely calling out their employees — not black men being killed by police. They were standing up for the NFL, not human rights. If Sunday was it, all they did was participate in a photo op that made everyone feel good.

We don’t need to feel good right now; we need to feel uncomfortable.

It’s a process. For one, hearing we have “white privilege” feels like it carries a stigma, as if we have been branded “racist” and don’t know why. It’s almost like a virus one needs to be inoculated from at a CVS pharmacy each fall.

But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t have a disease — society does.

Author and consultant Frances E. Kendall’s 2002 essay Understanding White Privilege put it this way: “For me, the confusion and pain of this knowledge is somewhat eased by reminding myself that this system is not based on each individual white person’s intention to harm but on our racial group’s determination to preserve what we believe is rightly ours. This distinction is, on one hand, important, and, on the other hand, not important at all because, regardless of personal intent, the impact is the same.”

In other words, hearing you have “white privilege” shouldn’t carry an ounce of baggage, even if the language feels accusatory. I know it took me a while to get there.

I have, for much of my life, failed to acknowledge that privilege. I rationalized that I did not have it because my papa-was-a-rolling-stone father moved us to a rural area of Hawaii when I was 12 — and I faced ugly prejudice for being white. (Everyone, by the way, should be on the other side of the fence at least once in their life to see what it’s like.) Given my own life circumstances, I reasoned it didn’t apply to me, that my own broken-home, abusive childhood didn’t involve any suburban cul-de-sacs or regular visits to the dentist, so what do I know about privilege?

But when you begin to think deeply about your own life experiences compared with your friends of color, it’s harder to dismiss.

I’ve never had to educate my young sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection, to warn them of law enforcement officers who might not give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve never applied for a home loan and suspected that I was turned down because some of my prospective neighbors only want to live next to and around people who look and think like them.

Privilege is when a deranged racist murders multiple black worshippers at a church Bible study and, upon seeing the race of the individual who did it, you did not have to say to your friend, “Damn, now they’re going to think all of us white folk are racist killers.”

The biggest benefit of being white: Our problems are far less likely to be attributed to some racial/cultural failure. Our government will hear our cries and not tell us to get over it but rather, in point of fact, ask us how it can help (even if the help doesn’t always come).

If Popovich is honest, white privilege is what allows him to make those statements in the first place. Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season, has been to two Super Bowls, won one and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to more wins the past decade than any team except the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, is walking a tightrope at this minute, trying to keep his protest-torn team together while not being shunned by his boss and the team’s customers.

“People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again? They’re pulling the race card again, why do we have to talk about that again?’ ” Popovich said. “Well, it’s because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people — because we are comfortable.”

I don’t like hearing this. It forces me to confront truths I don’t necessarily want to accept, because I don’t remember any breaks given me or job opportunities offered because of my complexion. But I’d be in denial to not believe that in numerous situations my race has helped me — in ways I never even notice.

Popovich’s statements are a piece of a conversation between white people that needs to happen more frequently. Whether there are enough people who look like me willing to engage in that conversation is an open question.

At least this week, though, his gruffness and often-annoying certainty about everything turned out to be good for more than just lighting a fire under Tim Duncan’s tush:

“Many people can’t look at it because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis,” he said. “People want to hold their position. People want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”

Anyone else white want to take a stab at it? It’s the only way the work of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick will ever get done.

Daily Dose: 9/26/17 Kyrie Irving claims he was trolling with his ‘flat earth’ theories

Tuesday’s another TV day, kiddos. I’ll be on Around The Horn at 5 p.m. on ESPN. Bob Ryan’s on the show today, so the likelihood of career win No. 2 is pretty low, alas.

Donald Trump is not an NFL owner. He’s the president of the United States. He wanted to be a sports owner, but that didn’t really work out. It’s a shame, too, but he actually probably would fit right in with those guys. Alas, they don’t want him and Monday they showed him that. Now, he’s saying that he thinks the NFL should create an actual rule to prevent players from kneeling during the anthem. Seriously, Puerto Rico is about to get washed off the face of the earth, and this is where we are in the White House.

I drink a lot of milk. This is a known fact. Every time I show up in a meeting room with a quart of it, people recoil in horror as if I’m somehow doing something not considered reasonable in polite society. Anyway, milk comes from cows, and I drink it in the “whole” variety. But these days “milk” doesn’t even really mean much, outside of something being a form of dairy liquid squeezed from another product. Almond milk is surely something you’re familiar with. Cockroach milk might be less familiar to you, but that, I can live with. But pea milk? NOPE.

Kyrie Irving ain’t fooling anyone. A while back, when he said during a podcast that he believed that the Earth was flat, most people believed him. Why? Because most people aren’t in the business of lying about basic scientific facts as a way to call attention to themselves. Now, he’s claiming that he only did that as an “exploitation tactic” — whatever that means. First of all, I don’t believe this, whatsoever. But even if I did, it doesn’t change how I feel about flat-earthers, anyway.

If you paid players to play major college sports, you’d have way less controversy. But, alas, this is the world we live in, so when the FBI gets involved to tell us that a bunch of schools having been paying players for years, we’ve got to act like we’re outraged. I, for one, am not. But folks are getting arrested, including big-time people from big-time sneaker companies. Of course, if all this is true, it fundamentally changes the entire purpose of the NCAA, which is fine by me, too.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Oh, and if you’re wondering why people are protesting at NFL games, look no further than Pittsburgh to explain. A fire chief in Pennsylvania posted on Facebook that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was a “no-good n—–,” which should give you an idea of how old that guy is.

Snack Time: If you’re looking for a hockey team to root for this season, you might want to take a look at the Winnipeg Jets, who we can say at the least, are very woke.

Dessert: Mark Cuban wins the day, y’all.

Michael Vick’s next chapter includes forgiving himself and guiding young athletes The retired QB has started sports academies and is pushing his brand V7

A normal day in the life of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick is spent with family, maybe indulging in some golf and during this time of year taking in some NBA playoff games.

“I wake up and I try to handle all my business by 2 o’clock. I’m golfing from 3 to 5, maybe practicing some short game, trying to get better as a golfer,” Vick said. “Then come home and spend time with my kids if I don’t go to pick them up around 3:30, and that night I’m trying to find the best TV show I can find. Right now it’s the playoffs, though.”

He was rooting for the Indiana Pacers, who were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of this postseason.

Vick announced his retirement in February after spending 13 seasons in the NFL, which included times filled with controversy, a prison sentence, a second chance and acts of remorse that involved advocating for animals.

April 30 marked the beginning of the postretirement Vick era. He’s turned his sights to the next chapter: guiding young athletes. Teaming up with the National Playmakers Academy (NPA), he launched the V7 Elite Playmakers Showcase Series, a premier sports camp in the South and East geared toward young athletes ranging from fifth- to 12th-graders.

The showcase provides an interactive camp setting where the kids will receive a combination of instruction from elite college and professional coaches and athletes, have their performances evaluated by college coaches by livestreaming, access to exclusive V7 gear (Vick’s official clothing line) and competition among elite talent. V7 Elite Playmakers Showcase Series kicked off its multicity tour Sunday at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

Vick’s next chapter represents his road to healing, including forgiving himself after serving 18 months in federal prison following a guilty plea to dogfighting conspiracy on Aug. 27, 2007.

On April 25, 2007, police raided his Virginia property and found several neglected pit bulls and evidence of dogfighting. By Aug. 24, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended Vick indefinitely without pay, but later said he’d have to show genuine remorse to get a chance at resuming his NFL career.

Vick, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, made four Pro Bowl appearances over his professional football career. He still holds the record for the most career rushing yards by a quarterback (6,109) and the most rushing yards by a quarterback in a season (1,039). The former Virginia Tech standout’s on-the-field career accomplishments include the NFL Comeback Player of the Year (2010) and the collegiate Archie Griffin Award in 1999.

Goodell conditionally reinstated Vick after his release from prison in July 2009, and in August of that year he signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and was fully reinstated in week 6 of the 2009-10 NFL season.

In his dark days, those prison days, Vick said, he did a lot of writing.

“I wrote a lot of people, whether it was prominent people, ambassadors, vice presidents. I was writing everybody,” he said. “I got over like 50,000, 60,000 pieces of mail that came through the prison systems for me. That just goes to show that people did care, and it was people of all different races, all different backgrounds, all different colors, all different denominations, and that’s what kept me uplifted.”

Vick was a target for animal rights activists, and protests followed him in the latter stages of his career. After Vick signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015, head coach Mike Tomlin told Trib Total Media that Vick had made efforts to atone for his past. “Rest assured that he has done a lot since some of the things that he has gone through. His track record to this point speaks for itself,” Tomlin said.

According to MNN.com, “since his release from federal prison in 2009, Vick has worked with the Humane Society to help stop dogfighting, and he helped get the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act passed in Congress. Recently, he made a trip to the Pennsylvania statehouse to support a bill that would give police more authority to rescue pets left in hot cars.”

Vick opened up to The Undefeated about retirement, his showcase series, prison and his journey to forgiveness.


How is retirement for you?

I feel good in retirement. As of right now, I feel like I’ve got enough going on to keep me occupied, and I think postcareer, for a lot of players, you worry about what’s to come or you don’t plan for what’s to come, and I didn’t have a plan. I just kind of followed all my resources and just allowed them to help me dictate what was best for my immediate future following retirement and I’ve got combines, showcases coming up for kids.

Ten different showcases in 10 different states, different cities. I’ve got a clothing line that’s about to emerge and some other things that sparked my interest that I think would be beneficial for my brand long term.

How did you decide on starting your showcase and your clothing line?

Well, I’ve done a lot of camps over the years. And camps, they follow the same format. And I think with a showcase, it gives collegiate coaches the opportunity to come out and view the kids and the kids can get some form of recognition in terms of being recruited by a major, Division I university or a DIII school.

I think every kid can place at some level of college football and I’ve been around those kids, following them. A lot of them now are entering the NFL from working with them in 2010, 2011, and that’s the exciting part about it. I’ve found so many kids who I can influence and who I can help.

In regards to the clothing line, I had my brand with Nike years ago, V7, and V7 did very well. We had five different shoes, we had a clothing line consisting of hats, T-shirts, headbands, and it was just a brand within itself that was taking, and I figure now it’s about the next generation.

A lot of kids follow me. A lot of them admired my style of play and look up to me as a role model, so I figure I’d come with the V7 the next generation and just keep the brand going.

How is your showcase camp different from other traditional football camps?

We’re continuing to help educate the kid moving forward. Some kids are going to be sophomores, some are going to be juniors, some are going to be rising seniors. For the younger guys, the underclassmen, they’ll get an opportunity to come back every year, annually, and as the season goes on, anything that they learn from these combines they can take it and apply in the season while they’re playing.

They can’t get it all, but just a weekend worth of consistent coaching and letting the kids know like this is the proper form, this is the proper technique, this is the attitude that you’ve got to display, competition-based, what your vision has to be as far as your competitiveness. Those are things they can take a long way, and it’s up to them to practice these skills on their own postcombine.

How many children do you expect at each showcase?

It’s going to vary. We’re thinking in places like, cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Texas, we’re looking at 500, 600 kids maybe. I don’t want to overwhelm it. I want to be able to be accessible to all the kids that’s at all the combines, so if registration gets too crazy, we’re going to shut it down. But looking at capping off, always trying to cap off at around 400 kids, which will be a good look.

We want to encourage more the middle-school kids, sixth through eighth grade, to come out and be in attendance. They’re the ones that’s going to be able to learn from the older guys, from the guys that are sophomores, juniors, seniors. Even at a young age you can vicariously learn, and we want to always make that a priority.

You’re beginning the camp at an HBCU, Tennessee State University. How did you decide on the various locations?

We would love to go to black schools, but you’ve got to cater to what’s available and the amount of kids that you can have, and it depends on how many fields that they have. That’ll always dictate where the location will be, but we want to be accessible to a whole diversity of people.

Football players come in all sizes, all colors, all shapes, whether small or big, and we encourage everybody to come out. And it’s going to be a great learning experience, first and foremost, and an opportunity to compete at a high level, which is most important.

It’s all about just turning that page, the next generation of athletes to come, on and off the field and, most importantly, being student-athletes. That’s what’s most important, and that’s probably what I preach more than anything. I believe the classroom is more valuable than sports and I took that seriously, and I think that was the reason why my way was paved for me as time went on.

Looking at your overall journey, what is the difference of what you learned when you first got into the league versus what you know exiting?

Well, I think when you first come into the National Football League, it’s a show-and-prove attitude that you have to have. On the field, you want to show your franchise or the franchise who picked you that you were worthy of the pick, whether it’s the first pick or the 250th pick. It’s all about dedicating yourself and it’s all about honing your skills to be the best that you can be, for the overall franchise and for the city. Because, depending on your position, you have a city on your back.

Throughout the whole process, you don’t really understand what it’s like to be in the NFL as far as the glamour, the limelight, all the splendor that may come along with it that you enjoy and that’s what we dream of, but I think inside of that sometimes we lose sight of the real dream, and that’s trying to win a championship and being the best citizen that you can be outside of football.

We lose sight of that, and at a young age I didn’t accept that. I didn’t want to take that responsibility on. I just wanted to play football and just be a good, honest, genuine person. After I had my situation, which I call it, I went in, I came out a better person. I got with a group of people who really cared about me and cared about my well-being and wanted me to succeed off the field first and on the field secondary.

I thought that was important, and what I learned as I went through those years was that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And if I could do it all over again, if I was the person I am today, I wouldn’t have never went through some of the things I went through. But it made me a complete person, and I’m still growing as the days go on.

I think just the journey within itself helped me to mature to a grown man who is dedicated to family, dedicated still to football, and dedicated to my off-the-field endeavors, whichever they may be.

What stages did you go through to overcome your adversity?

Well, I think just stage 1 was accepting it, knowing that, listen, I screwed up, I made a mistake, and somehow, some way this has to be corrected, but as of right now, I don’t know how I can do it, but I know it’s some challenges ahead that I’m not going to like, but I have to deal with.

Step 2 was living in it and understanding that, listen, I’m in a place where I don’t want to be, it was all self-inflicted and I accept it, and it hurts right now and I’m struggling, but I put my faith in God and not in man.

Step 3 was just the whole belief in the people around me and the whole faith thing that I had. And believing in God centered me around people when I came home that gave me a different vision, a different structure, a different outline on what my life could look like in seven years.

I looked at it and I accepted, and I said, ‘Listen, I’ve pushed through the toughest parts of my life, and maybe there will be parts of my life that will be tougher. I know what I leaned on. I’m accepting the truth and faith,’ and being proactive, making my life a reality in terms of what I wanted, and I did that. And that’s where I’m at to this day, and I stand by it.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

The hardest part of my journey, I think, is being in prison for 18 months. That’s something that you never envision. I know it’s times where people can visualize moments and put yourself in positions and say, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to do that. I never want to be in that position.’

I was one of those guys who always straddled the fence and thought about what could possibly be the worst thing that could happen, and prison, I think, was it. And I never expected to be in that situation or wanted to be, and when I found myself in that situation I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this has happened to me,’ but not for a week, not for a month, or a weekend. It was for 18 months.

Were people’s thoughts and opinions of you important?

Yeah, I always cared what people thought about me ever since I stepped into preschool. I was one of the guys who I always wanted to make my teacher proud. I never wanted to disrespect. If it was a teacher and I looked at her and I thought she was nice and kind and I thought she was beautiful and sweet, then I would go out of my way to make sure that she was proud of me.

At what point did you forgive yourself?

I forgave myself once I finished my prison sentence. I think when it was all said and done and it was over with, I forgave myself. I did my time, and then I was ready to walk into a different walk of life.

Who inspires you?

It’s so many people that inspire me. I would have to say so many coaches. Andy Reid inspired me. Mike Tomlin inspired me. Arthur Blank inspired me. My kids inspired me. My wife, family. Man, the list goes on and on.

A lot of people out there who give me so much inspiration. LeBron James inspires me. Kobe Bryant inspires me. Isaiah Thomas, he inspires me after what he went through last week. I get inspiration from so many places that it’s unbelievable. Even Sergio Garcia winning the Masters two weeks ago from all the adversity he went through.

I find inspiration in people and the moments that they have that’s gratifying. I relate to those situations on all levels because I feel like I’ve been there at some point, and that’s where my appreciation for life comes from.

Do you read a lot?

I did a lot of reading when I was in prison. I still read a lot now. I don’t have a lot of time. I read so many books when I was in prison. I think I’ve read enough for 40 years. I swear. That’s all I did. If I wasn’t playing chess — I learned to play dominoes towards the end — so if I wasn’t playing chess, I was reading. I was always thinking. I always had my mind involved in something.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Man. I think the best piece of advice I’ve ever received was just the character of a man and what it exists of. I think some people take that for granted, and I think if kids learned that from a young age this world would be a better place. Character goes a long way, and it’s all dictated on how you present yourself over a certain time span, and that’s what I believe in.

I just thought the character of a man dictates the type of person that you are, how people perceive you, was the best piece of advice that I could get because it fits the mold of me. It may be different for other people.

What do you tell other young men who ask for your advice?

Dream. That’s it. You dream, and that may actually turn into something, but I think you have to have imaginary thoughts of what you want your life to look like, because I know from the age of 10 I knew exactly what I wanted my life to look like. Some things went as planned, some things didn’t, but my life turned out the way I wanted it to be and it looked like what I envisioned when I was young, so dream.

If there’s anything regarding your sports path that you could’ve changed, what would that be?

If it’s anything that I truly would change to this day, because I think I did it all, like when I was younger I was lazy. As I got older, I worked harder. I would say just self-preservation. I would have preserved my body a little bit better. I just had ankle surgery, and it stemmed from a lot of downs, a couple of injuries that I had back in the day. Preserving myself is what I would have did just a tad bit better, but the competitive side of me didn’t allow me to do that when I was young.

What do you tell your babies, your children now about perseverance, growth and maturity?

My son is 14, my oldest daughter is 12 and my youngest daughter is 9. I tell them to dream, and the ultimate character to them is going to be dictated on what they learn every day in this household. How they see their mom and their dad conduct themselves on a daily basis. Being vicarious learners and having goals.

Like two weeks ago, I asked them what they wanted to be, all of them. Give me two things that you want to be or you want to do when you turn of age, 18, 21, finish college, and they all had some good answers and I was satisfied with what they wanted. And I think if they can narrow that focus and just take it serious, I think the sky’s the limit for them all because they’re all smart kids and they’ve all got goals and aspirations — but it starts when you’re young, and I try to instill that in them.

What do you see yourself doing in the next five years?

In five years, I see myself coaching. I’m setting the platform up now to get me geared into coaching and understand what it’s about. I already know I can do it on the highest level because I played on the highest level. It’s just all about information that won’t be redundant, but I’ll have to just be able to do it all over again.

It’ll give me the opportunity to chase a championship. I want to celebrate one more time in my life. I did it when I was young, had success in college. I didn’t win a national championship, but I know what it feels like to have those good moments and those good years, and I just want to feel that feeling again. If it takes coaching to chase that and be able to fulfill that need in my life, then why not give it a shot?