Source: Vick 'one of the heavyweights' in dogfighting

He arrived at the hotel room, where our cameras were set up, in a T-shirt and jeans. "I'm nervous," he said, surveying our lights and camera equipment. "I've never done anything like this before."

Our confidential source said he's been involved in dogfighting for more than 30 years. He has trained and fought -- by his estimation -- about 2,000 pit bulls and was poised to tell "Outside the Lines" about the time in 2000 when his dog squared off against a dog owned by someone he referred to as one of the "heavyweights" of the dogfighting world: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

"He's a pit bull fighter," the source said of Vick. "He's one of the ones that they call 'the big boys': that's who bets a large dollar. And they have the money to bet large money. As I'm talking about large money -- $30,000 to $40,000 -- even higher. He's one of the heavyweights."

On April 25, authorities raided a house in Surry County, Va., owned by Vick and reportedly found -- among other things -- 66 dogs (most of which were pit bulls), a dog-fighting pit, bloodstained carpets and equipment commonly associated with dogfighting. Vick was not at the scene and denied knowledge of dogfighting at the property. To this point, no charges have been filed against him. But questions about Vick and his possible connection to dogfighting linger.

This source -- who required anonymity as a condition of our interview -- has helped law enforcement by supplying information on dog fights that has led to dozens of felony arrests.

"I've fought dogs, I pitted them, I bred them and I've done everything with them," said the source of his three decades in dogfighting. He then went on to describe the scene from that night seven years ago, as he took his 42-pound dog into the pit (the area dogs fight in) to face off against Vick's dog. He says Vick did not get into the pit but had a member of his entourage handle his dog while Vick placed bets with the 20 or so people in attendance.

"Then he started, you know, waving money," the source said. "He was betting with everybody … He said he got $5,000. He said he's betting on his animal."

Although the source said he doesn't know how much Vick bet that night, he does recall the matches' outcome: Vick's dog lost. He said Vick is known in the dogfighting community as "the man that comes with all the money" and his reputation is "[that] he brings a good dog and he's going to bet and he's going to bring a nice sum of cash."

ESPN contacted Vick's agent, Joel Segal, who did not respond to the source's allegations.

In the U.S., dogfighting is considered a felony in every state except Wyoming and Idaho. Despite that fact, according to The Humane Society, it's estimated that somewhere between 20,000-40,000 people in this country take part in this multibillion-dollar industry.

"I believe that dogfighting is on the upswing," said John Goodwin, the deputy manager of the Animal Cruelty Campaign for The Humane Society. "And I believe that certain elements of the pop culture have glamorized dogfighting and glamorized big, tough pit bulls."

American pit bull terriers account for 99 percent of the species involved in dogfighting, and a pit bull puppy can cost as much as $5,000. An average dog fight carries a $10,000 purse.

So why would a professional athlete risk his reputation -- and a lifetime of financial security -- to do this?

"For the thrill of it," said a member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame who asked not to be identified. "It's like gambling, no different than when Michael Jordan drops $100,000 on a hole of golf."

There's no official data on just how many professional athletes might be associated with dogfighting today. Before the current investigation against Vick, in the past couple of years, only two professional athletes stand out as having been linked publicly to allegations of dogfighting: former NBA forward Qyntel Woods (who faced possible charges of dogfighting before pleading guilty to animal abuse in 2005) and former NFL running back LeShon Johnson, who pleaded guilty to three charges related to dogfighting, also, in 2005. Johnson is serving a five-year deferred sentence. But those players only scratch the surface of what Goodwin calls a "subculture" of dogfighting among professional athletes.

Everybody in the dog world is worried about Michael Vick talking. Michael Vick is making large money; he's making millions, OK? And if he has to tell on some people [to avoid prison time], I think he would tell … I don't put nothing past him.

Confidential source

"You know, it's very interesting that we have got a whole roster of names of professional athletes that we know are involved in dogfighting," Goodwin said. "Surely, not every single one has come to light; I bet not even 10 percent have come to light."

If that's true, one reason might have to do with the "code of silence" among dog fighters. The source said many matches take place on rural farms, with lookouts stationed in the woods and down surrounding roads, up to eight miles away. He adds that sometimes, local sheriffs are paid off to look the other way -- that is, when they're not participating in the dog fights themselves. But with as many as 200 people in attendance at any given match, how is it possible that a high-profile athlete can attend dog fights and never have word get out to the general public?

"Dogfighting is a very private thing," answers the source, who said that Vick was still involved in dogfighting as recently as last year. "It's all Pit Bull Men. It's close knit: you got your little boys, then you got your heavyweight boys. It's a completely different class … And now [that] it's all over the media, and you have to keep it more private."

The source said he consented to our interview to change people's perceptions about dogfighting because they have "the wrong idea" about it and should see "just one" match for themselves before judging it.

"They'll let this other thing go -- what is it called? UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship]?" he asked. "That is every bit as bad -- you know, that's terrible. But then you have thousands of people that cheer, rah, rah, and they really love that. You see guys get their heads busted, you know, and they get their arms messed up, their legs twisted almost off. But then they fuss over this here, is wrong."

When asked what he thinks people's reactions will be when they learn of his account of Vick's involvement in dogfighting, the source was nonplussed.

"They shouldn't be really upset, OK?" he said. "Because it's only just an animal. It's just a dog that is raised up. He's put out there, you know, and he's chained up, OK. And the time he gets a certain age, this dog is going to want to fight. It is bred in him, OK? He knows what he is and he's going to fight. Just take him off the leash, let him go."

"Dogfighting is illegal for a reason," Goodwin said. "It's a severe form of cruelty."

"The gameness that the dog fighters strive for -- and 'gameness' is the willingness to continue fighting, even in the face of extreme pain, even in the face of death -- is something that's bred into the dogs," Goodwin said. "There are pit bulls that have been bred away from the fighting lines that are perfectly socialized, but the game-bred dogs -- bred for fighting -- just have it bred in them to want to kill any dog in front of them."

On Friday, Surry County Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter told The Associated Press that the investigation against Vick is "moving forward." When contacted by ESPN and asked for a response to the source's contention of Vick's involvement in dogfighting, Falcons spokesman Reggie Roberts responded via e-mail, "Michael was drafted by the Falcons in 2001. The allegations regarding him are still under investigation, and until we have facts related to the investigation, we are unable to respond further."

The NFL released this statement: "Dogfighting is cruel, degrading, and illegal. We support a thorough investigation into any allegations of this type of activity. Any NFL employee proved to be involved in this type of activity will be subject to prompt and significant discipline under our personal conduct policy."

While the NFL continues to monitor the Vick investigation, there's another group closely monitoring it, as well … but for a different reason.

"Everybody in the dog world is worried about Michael Vick talking," the source said, shortly before leaving our interview room and heading back to work. "Michael Vick is making large money; he's making millions, OK? And if he has to tell on some people [to avoid prison time], I think he would tell … I don't put nothing past him."

Kelly Naqi is a reporter for "Outside the Lines."