Zero-sum game

Michael Vick's financial struggles underscore how easily ruin can come to any NFL player. Pier Nicola D'Amico for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

HE WILL HAVE TO BE RICH when he grows up. Brenda Vick thought that about her oldest son, Michael, as far back as when he was 13. "Ookie" -- she can hardly remember to call him Michael -- had just started earning money painting apartment complexes with her brother Casey and would stick the majority of it under his mattress, saving for a new Polo shirt or the Jordans she couldn't afford. The rest of his earnings he'd break off piecemeal to his sister Christina or brother Marcus -- a dollar to fix him a cup of Oodles of Noodles, another to iron that Polo. "Nobody got mad at him," Brenda says. "He'd smile and tell you why he couldn't do it."

During Vick's spectacular free fall from his place as one of the NFL's top endorsers and highest-paid players, the public was shocked at the details of just how many dollars were passed out to Vick's fame-inflated circle.

For anyone in an NFL locker room, though, Vick's extravagant finances were uncomfortably recognizable. "We've all thought that we've received so much money and we're too smart to lose it," says former Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss, a first-round pick who made close to $20 million in his 10-year NFL career and went bankrupt in 2009. "It's easier to lose a million than you think."

AT HIS PEAK, Vick's on-field theatrics and family-friendly-enough demeanor held major cachet with Madison Avenue marketers, landing him on the cover of Madden NFL 2004 and as a pitchman for Coca-Cola, Hasbro and Kraft in the kind of ads that run after school and during daytime soaps. In 2005, Forbes estimated that Vick was the world's fourth-highest-earning athlete, raking in $37.5 million.

As his income grew, Vick supported upward of 30 people. Suddenly everybody had a job or vested interest. His friend Charlie "CJ" Reamon acted as his money handler and personal assistant and the point person for a deal with AirTran. His friend Adam "Wink" Harris fielded Nike's calls. Marcus was given a new car every year on his birthday. His mom got her dream home -- a 7,800-square-foot mansion. "Anything I said I wanted, I got it," Brenda says. "Sometimes you can't say nothing around him because he'd try to do it."

According to September 2008 court documents, Vick outlaid $31,293.87 that month to pay for mortgages, cars, clothes, private school and myriad other expenses for Brenda; his fiancee, Kijafa Frink, and their two kids; ex-girlfriend Tameka Taylor and their son; and his two sisters. But no matter how many bills he paid or people he housed in his four homes, nobody drained his pockets as much as his business partners.

"I grew up laid-back and reserved," Vick says, "and all of a sudden I had become somewhat arrogant in some people's eyes, and I let in the wrong kind of people."

In 2006, Vick lost $40,000 he'd invested in a janitorial company that, he would testify, "was run into the ground by one of my friends." So was an airport medical service company that quickly lost Vick $150,000. He sunk another $827,000 into two wine bars and a package store that he co-owned with a surgeon and a lawyer, both of whom he met through his financial planner. Vick became partners with an animal dealer named Art Washington, first in a car rental business (a $1.4 million investment), then a horse farm on which Vick made a $200K personal guarantee. Vick didn't realize anything was amiss until he became suspicious of Washington's new cars and large salary. "At the time, Mike was getting large amounts of money, and he spent money," Frink says, "but he also saved. We'd have conversations about, 'Oh, I have this property in Atlanta, and in 10 years it's going to make me millions.' He was planning for his future on what seemed to be an appropriate path."

UNDER SCRUTINY FROM the courts in 2008, a year after his indefinite suspension from the NFL, Vick disclosed he had $16.1 million in assets and more than $20.4 million in debt. However, Vick didn't go broke because he wasn't on the field. It was due to a poor financial decision made long before his conviction.

In January 2001, with his agent, Andrew Joel, at his side, Vick announced he was leaving Virginia Tech to go to the NFL. Two weeks later, on the advice of his cousin, then-Saints QB Aaron Brooks, Vick mailed Joel a letter ending their deal in order to sign with Brooks' Octagon rep. Joel filed a $41 million suit against Octagon, which was not resolved. He also filed a $45 million suit against Vick that was settled in early 2008 for $4.5 million. After his imprisonment, Vick attempted to make amicable arrangements with his creditors and avoid bankruptcy, but Joel's aggressive litigation in pursuit of the settlement forced Vick to seek protection from all of them.

In prison, his finances went from bad to worse. With a mountain of debt and no NFL salary, Vick hired a fraudulent financial adviser, Mary Wong, who had made her way into Vick's accounts the same way investors had -- by making big promises and creating doubt. "When Art was doing business with Mike, instead of talking to everyone, Art would make it just them two," Reamon says. "Mary Wong came in and said, 'Put your trust in me. I'm an investment banker. I have [then-Falcons linebacker] Demorrio Williams. He has a private jet, and you don't.'"

In 2007, Vick gave power of attorney to Wong, who transferred an unspecified amount of Vick's cash into her personal accounts. His creditors successfully sued Wong in 2008 for $396,158, but she is unlikely to pay due to her own bankruptcy. The point remains that Wong and Washington came into Vick's life through people he trusted. "Everyone can get taken advantage of," says Carl Francis, director of communications for the NFL Players Association. "Yes, NFL players are a bigger target. You come in as a 21-year-old player. Compare that to a college student. There's not much difference between the two, except for their paychecks."

Bad advice permeates NFL locker rooms, where players often lean on each other for financial referrals. Between 1999 and 2002, the NFLPA estimates, 78 players lost a total of $42 million in acts of fraud perpetrated by financial advisers. In response to the rampant conning, the NFLPA started its Financial Advisors Program in 2002, but critics say the union's vetting process for the more than 400
approved money managers isn't strenuous enough. In 2008, six players sued the NFL and the NFLPA when an investment planner named Kirk Wright defrauded the group out of $20 million. Wright was an NFLPA-approved adviser who had $400,000 in liens against him at the time he was verified.

The next year, several members of the Saints entrusted hundreds of thousands of dollars to the team's long snapper at the time, Kevin Houser, who is a registered broker. Houser had sold them nonexistent tax credits from a film studio for which he was also an investor. He's now a member of the Ravens, and there are several suits pending against him.

"Some of these guys grew up well," Francis says. "They have four-year degrees. But sometimes when you're dealing with money, you take financial risks, and sometimes they don't work out. People try to categorize NFL players, but Vick's decision is really no different from the guy across the street."

The first step in Vick's financial comeback was filing for bankruptcy while he was in prison. There are generally two types of personal bankruptcy filings. Chapter 11 requires people to pay back a percentage of their debts, usually 20 or 30 cents on the dollar, but enables them to liquidate fewer assets. Chapter 7 offers people greater protection from creditors but requires liquidation of nearly all assets. Typically, an athlete with debts as large as Vick's would file for Chapter 7 -- like Steelers backup QB Charlie Batch, who filed in 2010 -- but Vick opted for Chapter 11. "He just wanted to man up for what he did and not take the easy way out," Reamon says.

Before Vick was reinstated by the NFL, his legal team hired well-known bankruptcy financial planning specialist Ira Spiegel, who agreed to work with Vick for at least the first two years of his repayment. Once Vick was reinstated, a bankruptcy court reviewed a detailed six-year plan that committed Vick to paying his debts off at 80 cents on the dollar. Key to the plan was that, of every dollar he makes over $750,000, up to $2.5 million, creditors get 25 percent; over that, 30 percent; and if he breaks the $10 million threshold, 40 percent is taken.

Vick's first deal with the Eagles was for one year at $1.6 million. When he proved to be a reliable backup, the team signed him for the 2010 season at $5.2 million, increasing his contribution to the plan. With a Pro Bowl season in 2010 and a subsequent franchise player tag, Vick should earn between $16 million and $20 million this year, returning him to pre-prison income levels. His new salary gives Vick the chance to repay his entire debt and finish his obligation a year early. "To have someone say 'I'm going to give you 100 cents on the dollar' in a bankruptcy of his size is not common," Spiegel says.

Renewed interest in Vick as an endorser could also help him get there, but so far, Vick's appeal has been limited. "The deals he has signed are for performance-related brands. That's where he has credibility," says Dr. Stephen McDaniel, who studies sports and entertainment marketing at the University of Maryland. "He's been out doing community service and, oh by the way, becomes a stellar athlete again. I think those are the kinds of things that make people want to forgive. If he comes out and is maybe too present in the media, then a backlash could start. Reminding people what he did to those dogs isn't going to sell Coca-Cola and cookies to kids."

His past isn't keeping Vick from selling sneakers anymore. In July, he inked an undisclosed multiyear contract with Nike -- the first time the sneaker giant has ever terminated an athlete endorser and then brought him back into the fold. Having the NFL's sixth-best-selling jersey in 2010 didn't hurt.

THE QUESTION NOW is if Vick will avoid repeating his past financial and business mistakes. His eagerness to knock out his debt saw him signing endorsement deals this summer with two competing supplement companies, which resulted in one, Fuse Science, dropping Vick from its five-year agreement. But he says he's committed to changing for good, and separating friends and money is a first step. "I have friendships now not based on business," Vick says. "People who have been with me from my lifetime. They're genuine and real."

He has narrowed that circle of friends, even cutting off some relatives. Those who are left in his life are diversifying. Reamon is planning to get his MBA, and this summer Frink opened an accessories store, PNK Elephant, in Philadelphia. It's been successful enough that she's considering a second location. "I didn't want that to happen again," she says of the bankruptcy. "I had to branch out on my own. I want to make my own money."

Reminders of the hard times are not far. In Brenda's Hampton, Va., home -- the one Vick was allowed to keep -- furniture salvaged from the big house sits stacked in storage near bins of clothes and photo albums piled in the garage. A dining set meant for a grand home sits wedged in a room up front, with memorabilia piled around. In the sitting room, three breakfront cabinets overtake the space like
real-life furniture jammed into a playhouse. Reamon and a friend loaded most of it in their pickups, helping Brenda move all of it during the worst time in their lives.

Successfully managing this restored money and image means Vick could once again put Brenda in a house that's big enough for all that furniture.

But for now, if he's smart, he'll cap the number of homes he buys at one.

Elena Bergeron is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine.