How Vick's hometown of Newport News, Va., is handling controversy

NORFOLK, Va. - At home, the healing will be slow.

As in Philadelphia, outrage and support for Michael Vick's return to the NFL is markedly divided in his native southeastern Virginia.

Comment boards tagged to the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot's avalanche of recent Vick stories crackle with bolts of bitterness - "Once a thug, always a thug," "He's only sorry he got caught!" - and pleas for forgiveness - "People, let it go," "Time to move on. I'm now an Eagles fan."

Vick's name remains supercharged. Even some who know him well tread lightly around the controversy, speaking publicly in crafted statements or not at all.

Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, in a short statement about his former star: "Michael . . . is very intent on making things right."

Former Warwick High (Newport News) coach Tommy Reamon, now at Virginia Beach's Landstown High, is brief on Vick's image repair: "He's doing what's right. He's doing whatever he's asked to do."

Ask to discuss Vick with Mayor Joe Frank, whose city of Newport News was disparaged as "Bad Newz" throughout Vick's dogfighting scandal, and Frank replies through his assistant: No thanks.

Even an often-quoted Vick advocate, James "Poo" Johnson, a Boys & Girls Club branch director in Newport News, has been muted by the home office.

"It's hard to separate the personal from the professional," said Steven S. Kast, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula, for whom Vick worked briefly this summer.

"Our policy is, I'm the spokesperson for the club," and then Kast speaks no more, referencing instead his earlier statement: Vick has learned his lesson and "is now conscious of his obligations."

It's been the overarching game plan since Vick's release from federal custody in July - safety first on such uncharted ground. Especially for Vick, whose rehab journey is being managed by public-relations whiz Judy Smith and has been joined by respected former NFL coach Tony Dungy.

Before he exploded into Philadelphia's consciousness and humbled himself all over "60 Minutes," Vick's few hometown appearances were mostly official, and mostly silent.

Without comment, Vick visited his probation officer last month and also appeared in bankruptcy court in Norfolk, where his Chapter 11 reorganization plan still awaits approval from Judge Frank J. Santoro. Closure could come at an Aug. 27 confirmation hearing in Newport News, where Vick is expected to testify. He is eligible to make his debut for the Eagles that night in a preseason game against Jacksonville at Lincoln Financial Field.

Unannounced, Vick 2 weeks ago also dropped in on Reamon's opening practice in Virginia Beach to chat with and instruct players. He spoke briefly off-the-cuff to the Virginian-Pilot about his "love" for working with kids and for "putting smiles on their faces."

Said Landstown High quarterback Larry Joshua, Vick is "somebody I can trust, since he's been in the league and he's someone who knows coach Reamon."

Joshua is a candidate to pick up a No. 7 Vick Eagles jersey when they turn up locally. Calls to sports-apparel shops this week uncovered no Vick jerseys yet - "Try the NFL Shop," one manager said. But evidently there is interest, and the shirts are on the way.

"The day after he signed, we got a bunch of calls," said Mike Magro, manager of the Champs store in Newport News' Patrick Henry Mall. "If we had them, we'd definitely sell them."

The most glaring void at home, however, has been Vick's conspicuous absence in his new role as a Humane Society of the United States representative.

His conditional NFL reinstatement requires Vick to spend 2 days a month working with the group to combat dogfighting. Before he joined the Eagles, Vick delivered private lectures to at-risk youths at established Humane Society programs in Atlanta and Chicago.

But in southeastern Virginia, ground zero of Vick's heinous behavior, he has yet to publicly lay the first brick of retribution. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, appears eager to see that rectified.

"There's an obvious problem there with dogfighting, as evidenced by Michael's own involvement," Pacelle said. "We haven't announced September's events, but if it's not then, it will be soon. Southern Virginia's on our short list of cities we want to get to."

While Pacelle acknowledged how deeply Vick emotion runs even within his own group, he urged looking beyond Vick's revolting history for potential benefits.

"Some of them don't want to be involved with Michael," Pacelle said of his constituents, "but think it's the right thing to do."

Because ultimately, said Pacelle, "The goal is not the endless flogging of Michael Vick, but rather to eradicate dogfighting."