As he sits in his jail cell, contemplating the mistakes that landed him there and whether his future might include a return to the NFL, Michael Vick could draw strength from this mantra provided for him Monday by a prominent sports agent:
"It only takes one."
Vick, 27, sentenced Monday to 23 months in federal prison for his part in an illegal dogfighting operation, will miss a minimum of two full NFL seasons. Even with time off for good behavior, the earliest he could be released is the summer of 2009, and his NFL playing career would still be in the hands of league Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has suspended him indefinitely.
But don't count Vick out, says Leigh Steinberg, who represented Ricky Williams, another star gone astray who managed a return to the league this year after three full seasons away.
"It may be that  franchises pass on him as too problematic," the agent said after Vick's sentence was announced. "But it only takes one" to provide a second chance.
Citing Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as examples -- Bryant was accused of rape; Lewis was involved in a murder investigation -- Steinberg said that, in a sense, time is on Vick's side because "two years from now, other stories will have taken this one's place."
It was just that long ago that the Atlanta Falcons star was "the single most marketable young player in the NFL -- on the EA Sports game cover, had his own Nike shoe line," Steinberg recalled. "His was the face of the most popular spectator sport in this country."
Vick's dramatic fall from grace began this year when law enforcement officials began investigating a dogfighting operation in rural Virginia. At first the quarterback denied knowledge of the illegal activity, but he admitted his role after three co-defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to help the government's case.
In a plea agreement announced in August, the quarterback acknowledged he bankrolled the business, helped kill dogs that did not perform well and provided money for bets on the fights. In anticipation of Monday's sentence, he turned himself in Nov. 19 and has been jailed in Warsaw, Va., since then.
Co-defendants Quanis Phillips of Atlanta, who got 21 months, and Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach, Va., who got 18 months, have already been sentenced. The third, Tony Taylor, is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.
Wearing a striped prison suit in court Monday, Vick apologized to his family and U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who admonished the former Pro Bowler, saying, "You need to apologize to the millions of young people who looked up to you."
Vick said he was "willing to deal with the consequences and accept responsibility for my actions." But Hudson chose the high end of federal guidelines that called for his prison term to be 18 to 24 months.
The reason: "I'm not convinced you've fully accepted responsibility," Hudson told Vick, meaning the judge agreed with a probation officer's finding that Vick lied about his role in killing dogs and also about his drug use. (Vick tested positive for marijuana Sept. 13, shortly after he pleaded guilty in the case.)
Later, outside court, Lawrence Woodward, one of Vick's attorneys, said his client "wants a chance to prove himself when all this is over."
Whether the NFL is part of that proving ground might depend on whether he comes out of prison "a better person" . . . "or a bitter person," said Dan Reeves, Vick's first coach with the Falcons.
Gil Brandt, the personnel executive who built the Dallas Cowboys' best teams, predicted a franchise would take a chance on Vick -- perhaps as a receiver or defensive back rather than quarterback.
"It's like a student who drops out of school for a couple years," Brandt said. "He has a hard time reacquiring his work habits and study skills."
Former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs said that if he were still in the league, he would have no qualms about giving Vick an opportunity because "No. 1, he's a good guy. He's not flaky, and fighting dogs wasn't a bad thing in the environment he grew up in. I'd take a chance on him in a heartbeat."
How would McCombs deal with protesters who disagree? "You also have people who believe in a guy paying his dues and putting in his time," he said. "Let a guy make his living."
Others weren't so sure.
"How many teams would be willing to take the PR hit that goes along with signing him?" asked an NFC personnel executive who requested that his name not be used. "Not many."
And that's assuming Vick could stay physically fit and mentally football sharp while in prison -- a couple of major ifs.
Quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson put the odds against Vick's catching back on in the NFL as a quarterback as "monumental."
"He'd have a better chance climbing Mt. Everest without snowshoes," said Clarkson, who is credited with the polishing of Matt Leinart and others. "The game is too complicated, and his baggage is too much."