RICHMOND, Va. - Looking somber and speaking "from the heart," Michael Vick apologized Monday for "using bad judgment and making bad decisions" and vowed to redeem himself after pleading guilty to a federal dogfighting charge.
"First I want to apologize for all the things that I've done and that I have allowed to happen," the star quarterback said at a news conference following his appearance in U.S. District Court to formally enter the plea.
Sentencing was set for Dec. 10 and Vick could be sent to prison for one to five years. Vick was suspended indefinitely by the NFL last week.
In Atlanta, the Falcons said they would not cut Vick immediately because of salary-cap issues. The team intends to pursue the $22 million in bonus money that he already received in a record $130 million contract signed in 2004.
"We cannot tell you today that Michael is cut from the team," owner Arthur Blank said. "It may feel better emotionally for us and many of our fans, but it's not in the long-term best interests of the franchise."
Vick made his first public statements on the dogfighting ring and said:
"I made a mistake of using bad judgment and making bad decisions. Those things just can't happen. Dogfighting is a terrible thing, and I do reject it."
He singled out NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Blank, coach Bobby Petrino and his teammates for personal apologies, saying "I was not honest and forthright in our discussions."
He also apologized to "all the young kids out there for my immature acts and what I did — and what I did was very immature. So that means I need to grow up."
"I totally ask for forgiveness and understanding as I move forward to bettering Michael Vick the person, not the football player," he said.
He concluded by saying, "I offer my deepest apologies to everyone. And I will redeem myself. I have to."
Vick took no questions.
He said little in court, standing erect and softly answering "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson's questions. Family members occupied the front row of the packed courtroom for the 15-minute hearing.
The plea by the suspended quarterback was accepted by Hudson, who asked: "Are you entering the plea of guilty to a conspiracy charge because you are in fact guilty?"
Vick answered yes.
Hudson emphasized he is not bound by sentencing guidelines or the recommendations of prosecutors and can impose the maximum sentence. Prosecutors proposed a 12- to 18-month prison term.
"You're taking your chances here. You'll have to live with whatever decision I make," Hudson said.
"A first-time offender might well receive no jail time for this offense," U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said in a statement. "We thought, however, that the conduct in this conspiracy was heinous, cruel and inhumane." Vick is one of four defendants in the case.
The first defendant to plead guilty left the conspiracy in 2004 and is not as culpable, Rosenberg said.
Blank and general manager Rich McKay refused to say that Vick's career in Atlanta was over, though that is likely more a legal issue than an indicator of their future plans.
"We cannot undo what's been done," Blank said. "But we can and will recover from this."
The Falcons will receive a $6 million cap credit for Vick's salary this year since he's been suspended without pay. They are still on the hook for approximately $22 million in prorated bonus obligations spread out over this season and the next two.
Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, both members of the Falcons' board, attended the news conference at Blank's corporate headquarters.
In his written plea filed last week, Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls and supplying money for gambling on the fights. He said he did not personally place any bets or share in any winnings.
Shortly afterward, the NFL suspended him indefinitely and without pay. Merely associating with gamblers can trigger a lifetime ban under the league's personal conduct policy.
The case began in late April when authorities conducting a drug investigation of Vick's cousin raided the former Virginia Tech star's rural Surry County property and seized dozens of dogs, some injured, and equipment commonly used in dogfighting.
A federal indictment issued in July charged Vick, Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach, Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Tony Taylor of Hampton with an interstate dogfighting conspiracy. Vick initially denied any involvement, and all four men pleaded innocent. Taylor was the first to change his plea to guilty; Phillips and Peace soon followed.
The details outlined in the indictment and other court papers fueled a public backlash against Vick and cost him several lucrative endorsement deals, even before he agreed to plead guilty.
The Falcons were to play an exhibition game at home against the Cincinnati Bengals later Monday. This will be the first chance for the team to see what effect Vick's case has on attendance at the Georgia Dome. Vick wears the biggest-selling jersey in team history and is given much credit for its 51 consecutive sellouts.
"We're putting the emotions, the shock, the disappointment, the anger and the once-held hope that this was not true behind us," Blank said. "I assure you we'll do all we possibly can to make this season a success."