There was Michael Vick, dressed in a brown prison jumpsuit, sitting at a metal table in a crammed courtyard at a federal penitentiary in Kansas.
It was May. Weeks before he would be released after 18 months of confinement for his role in a dogfighting ring that killed and maimed.
Months before this Thursday, when the Philadelphia Eagles surprisingly signed him to a two-year contract.
That day, far from public view, he was seeking something. A measure of forgiveness. A path by which he could make amends. He sought this from a most unlikely source.
"My organization was the architect of one of the key laws that he was charged under," says that source, Wayne Pacelle. "We had provided a key confidential informant and had been active in his prosecution. . . . We had a very harsh view of Michael Vick."
The organization Pacelle directs as chief executive and president? The Humane Society of the United States.
You might hold a similarly negative view of Vick, even now, after he has served his time.
I understand. I'm an animal lover, a cat guy more than anything. My wife and I treat Pablo, our shelter-rescued tabby, like a son. One of my favorite quotations is from Gandhi: "The more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man."
But, as regular readers of this column know, I also believe in redemption. In making amends and helping the contrite. Maybe, for those of us who've been holding an unforgiving view of Vick -- I've long thought he shouldn't be granted the privilege of playing NFL football again -- the story of Pacelle and the quarterback can be instructive.
Pacelle went to Kansas only after sifting through deep inner turmoil. He'd spent much of his adult life working for animal rights. When he'd first received a call from a Vick representative, asking for a dialogue, he was wary and angry. The thought of Vick and what he'd done was so sickening he put off replying for months.
Then he reconsidered. Let's remember what we are, he told himself and those within his organization. "We're devoted to ending dogfighting, not endlessly slogging Michael Vick. We are about not just ending cruelty, but also making people better. . . . This can be about turning adversaries into allies."
Some of his colleagues didn't want him to go. But he did, and he listened. In the courtyard, Vick softly spoke about growing up in a rough part of Virginia. About a subset of the culture there that, ironically and sadly, tolerated treating dogs the way slaves had been treated. He admitted that he first started fighting dogs at age 8 and never stopped until he was an NFL superstar and the police were knocking on the door.
"There was a phrase he used in the press conference in Philadelphia," Pacelle said, referring to Vick's address to the media on Friday. "I heard him use it for the first time that day: He wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Pacelle drew a hard line. He wasn't interested in Vick doing a few TV spots and then disappearing. This had to be real. The Humane Society has established what it calls the End Dogfighting Campaign, holding regular training sessions that focus on the widespread abuse of dogs in inner cities. (Go to www.hsus.org "> www.hsus.org for more information.) Pacelle estimates that there are 140,000 fighting dogs in the United States, roughly a third of them bred specifically for aggression.
140,000. An epidemic.
In the courtyard, Vick promised to do whatever Pacelle needed. He vowed to stay true to his word: At least twice a month he would go to the inner city to help the Humane Society spread its gospel. Both men knew how powerful a messenger he could be. The animal-rights movement has never had a spokesman with this kind of credibility among a certain hard swath of urban America.
Pacelle decided to take Vick into the fold. He did it cautiously, still watching to see if there will be any slips. But that old harshness? He cast it aside.
Vick and Pacelle have recently held presentations in churches in Atlanta and Chicago, facing crowds of young men who fight dogs or are tempted to for the money and machismo. Both times, Vick laid heart and soul on the line, according to both Pacelle and Tio Hardiman, a Chicago-based anti-dogfighting advocate who was there.
"I saw tears in Vick's eyes," says Hardiman. "You could see him struggling with the emotions when he talked to the kids. He told them what he did was something they shouldn't follow. These kids, some of them had never heard this message put the way he did."
Pacelle says his organization has lost over 1,000 members because of its new connection with Vick. Yet he remains undeterred. He notes that the Humane Society, like so many others of its kind, is largely white and middle class; that it hasn't done enough to include minority communities and the poor. Vick can help change that. Vick can help change a lot of things.
"The worst you can do is write somebody off completely for not exhibiting model behavior," says Pacelle. "If we just stick with people who are already sympathetic, what good are we doing?"
I agree. I've come to a new view. Sometimes it's too easy to condemn. If we refuse to have anything to do with Vick -- keeping him from the NFL and from well-connected organizations such as the Humane Society -- we lose the most powerful platform by which he can make amends. We weaken his chance to save the lives of fighting dogs and shape the lives of kids who've been abusing them.
Now it's up to Vick to stay true.