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Prosecutors, hometown residents see two very different Vicks

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - To prosecutors, Michael Vick is a ruthless participant in a dogfighting operation.

To people living in the poor, crime-ridden neighborhood where Vick grew up, he is a generous benefactor who provides school supplies and athletic uniforms to local kids and buys air conditioners for housing-project residents suffering through Virginia's sweltering summers.

That is why they're sure that "Ookie," as he's known to childhood pals, is innocent.

"He's a good person. He's making a difference in the community," Misha Brown said Tuesday as she dropped off her children at the same Boys & Girls Club where the 27-year-old Vick honed the athletic skills that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NFL draft.

Though Brown has never met the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, she sings his praises. Without his generosity, she said, her children and others in the East End neighborhood would not have had backpacks and other supplies for school last year

"There should be more role models like him," she said.

Vick and three other men are to be arraigned Thursday in federal court in Richmond, accused of a conspiracy involving competitive dogfighting, procuring and training pit bulls for fighting, and conducting the enterprise across state lines.

The dogs fought at a property Vick owned in rural Surry County and, the indictment alleges, animals too weak to fight were hanged, drowned, shot to death or electrocuted.

There's no way Vick would be involved in something like that, said 29-year-old Anthony Cypress, who lives in the housing project where Vick was raised and said he played pickup basketball with him.

"Michael Vick is a good guy," Cypress said as he checked on laundry drying on a clothesline among the rows of identical blue and off-white housing units near a shipyard and coal piers. "I know he loves animals. Why he would throw them in a ring and try to kill them, I don't know."

Cypress said his 10-year-old son, Christopher, plays football for the Boys & Girls Club wearing a uniform, helmet and cleats provided by Vick. So do many of the other kids at the club, where Vick funds a lot of activities without making a fuss, he said.

So important was the Boys & Girls Club to Vick that he went there to announce his decision to leave Virginia Tech after just two seasons to enter the NFL draft. The club, he said then, helped keep him off the streets.

Vick's mentor there, James "Poo" Johnson, has known Vick since the football star was 7.

"He's being portrayed now sort of like a monster, but that's not him," said Johnson, now assistant chief executive officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula, said in a telephone interview. "I know his heart."

Travis Baptist, who said he knows Vick from the neighborhood, declared "Ookie is innocent!" when asked about the charges.

Vick never has forgotten his roots and might be a victim of his loyalty to the old neighborhood, Baptist said.

"He's just caught up with dudes, by still being good to the people in his neighborhood, hanging around his little team, his group of guys he likes to be around," Baptist said.

Jimmie Espich, who taught Vick English at Warwick High School, remembered him as a quiet, self-contained student with a sunny personality who earned mostly Bs.

"Michael had a dignity about him," Espich said in a telephone interview.

During the spring of Vick's senior year, the school's football coach arranged a meeting with Vick and his teachers. Espich said the teachers talked to Vick about the importance of working hard until the end, not just in high school but in life.

"I remember saying that ... there were going to be a lot of temptations in life, especially if he became this great athlete, and that he needed to begin practicing saying 'no' and not doing what the crowd was doing," she said.

"I guess I should have written it on his forehead."

AP sports writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond contributed to this report.

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