For Michael Vick to have any prayer of resuming his NFL career, he has to show true remorse for dogfighting, something he now admits doing as young as 8 years old.
He made that confession recently to Wayne Pacelle, chief executive and president of the Humane Society of the United States, when Pacelle visited him at his home in Hampton, Va.
Although he remains on probation, Vick on Monday completed his federal dogfighting sentence, which included 18 months in prison and two more under home confinement.
"He told me he got involved with dogfighting at 8 years old when he was living in project housing," said Pacelle, who earlier met with the former quarterback in prison in Leavenworth, Kan. "That's pretty young. I wouldn't say it's unheard of, but that's the lower end of the range, certainly."
Pacelle said the Humane Society is remaining neutral on whether Vick deserves to return to the NFL and has not had any contact with the league on the matter. He did add, however, that "we don't take a static view of society; we want people to change and become better."
To that end, it looks as if Vick is on the verge of making public appearances on behalf of the Humane Society aimed at discouraging at-risk kids in urban environments from participating in animal-fighting crimes. Pacelle said his group hopes to make an announcement regarding those appearances within the next 10 days.
"We want him to prove himself," Pacelle said in a phone interview. "He says that he wants to do this work, but we want to see that validated with work on the ground. He said, 'Talk is cheap,' and that he wants to demonstrate his commitment through his deeds, and I agree."
Pacelle said historic progress has been made in combating animal fighting since the Vick case came to light, including 22 states that have upgraded their laws since the quarterback was arrested.
As for Vick's motivations for working with the Humane Society -- whether it's true remorse or simply trying to sway NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell -- Pacelle declined to speculate.
"I'm not a psychologist, and it's beyond my educational background to make that judgment," he said. "We insist that he validate his pledge with work on the ground. But I do believe that his professional interest in redeeming himself is an insurance policy for us, and in general gives us confidence that he's not going to get back into that world."
It remains to be seen how Vick's plans will influence Goodell, who is expected to turn his attention soon to the quarterback's future and what to do about the indefinite suspension he imposed before the start of the 2007 season.
At the NFL meetings in May, Goodell said: "Michael is going to have to demonstrate to myself and to the general public and to a lot of people: Did he learn anything from this experience? Does he regret what happened? Does he feel that he can be a positive influence going forward? Those are the questions that I would like to see [answered] when I sit with him."
Then, there's the question of how valuable Vick is at 29, coming off at least a two-year break from football. Would he be a viable candidate to play quarterback in every-down situations, or is he more of a gimmick threat in, say, a wildcat scheme?
More importantly, would any franchise be willing to withstand the protests and public scrutiny such a signing would be sure to bring?
Evidently, Vick is preparing for the possibility of reinstatement. Citing sources familiar with his plans, ESPN reported Monday that he is expected to hire performance trainer Tom Shaw to get him back up to speed.
Once among the country's richest athletes, Vick doesn't have the money to do much hiring these days. He forfeited an estimated $70 million when the Atlanta Falcons released him from his 10-year, $130-million contract. Vick filed for bankruptcy protection a year ago, listing $16 million in assets and $20 million in debt.
In a statement released Monday, Ed Sayres, president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said it was Vick's "barbarism that sets the crime apart." He pointed to the player's plea that, among other things, he electrocuted and beat dogs to death after they lost fights.
"This was not a one-time transgression or crime of passion -- this was a multi-year pattern of behavior that demonstrates a startling lack of moral character and judgment," Sayres said.
So the question remains, the one with which Goodell will be grappling:
Having paid his debt to society, Vick deserves to work. But does he deserve this work, an opportunity so many others would love to have?