SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Michael Irvin says to take it from someone who knows: The worst thing that can happen to Michael Vick right now is to be kept away from football.
"I've been there when you spend eight hours a day in a courtroom and people are talking about you like you are the worst person in the world," Irvin said Monday. "I'm not condoning what he might have done, but to take the game from him, at this stage, I think people don't understand how it breaks him."
Irvin went through his own high-profile legal case in July 1996, months after he'd helped the Dallas Cowboys win their third Super Bowl in four years. Before his trial went to the jury, Irvin pleaded no contest to cocaine possession. He was fined $10,000 and put on probation. Then the NFL suspended him from the first four games of the 1996 season.
Vick is facing federal dogfighting charges. He's pleaded not guilty, but the NFL has told him to stay away from training camp, a move that stopped the Atlanta Falcons from suspending their quarterback from the first four games of the season.
"I hurt for him," Irvin said. "I empathize with him because I hear people saying he should take the year off, to forget about football and focus on his legal troubles. But football is what got him through everything - everything! It got him out of where he grew up, out of the hood, out of the ghetto. Football has always been the sanctuary."
Irvin said football was his refuge even during his trial.
"It was my escape even in my own head," he said. "I would count down the hours, not to go home but to go to the football field. I got up there and exhausted myself until I couldn't think about what I was going through."
Vick is one of the NFL's most exciting players, a threat to throw a long pass or break off a long run. Irvin wonders whether he'll be the same player should he make it back to the field.
"I was never the same after I went through that trial - and I had football while I went through it," Irvin said. "I worry about Mike. Will he ever be the same? ... It takes so much out of you."
While he understands the support for new quarterback Joey Harrington and the team's vow to move on without their best player, Irvin believes Atlanta players are making a mistake by distancing themselves from Vick.
"I think that's crushing him even more," Irvin said. "I want some guy to say, `Hey, Mike Vick's our quarterback and he will always be our quarterback. We'll always love him, but we have to move on.' If somebody would say that, you'd be amazed at how uplifting that would be to Mike Vick."
Irvin recalls how much it meant to him when Troy Aikman showed up at his trial.
"I told him not to, that he didn't have to, but he did anyway," Irvin said. "I'm tearing up thinking about it. It meant everything to me. I will never, ever, ever be able to repay him or never, ever, ever be able to forget it."