PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Vick says he didn't want any "hoopla" when he returned to the NFL, but three years later, he has created plenty.
Once bankrupt, he is in the second year of a lucrative contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Three years after being released from prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, Vick has a new "V7" clothing line that doesn't run from his past, acknowledging his sins with T-shirts that read, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."
And now there is Michael Vick, author. His autobiography, Finally Free, which he started writing when he was behind bars for 21 months in Leavenworth, Kan., hits bookshelves Sept. 4.
The starting quarterback for a Super Bowl contender and recovered financially, Vick says he is "free to do whatever I want to do, and I couldn't ask for a better life right now." He has accepted that his dogfighting past holds a permanent place in his legacy.
"I've made peace with it, because I have no control over it. It's not like I could do it all over again," he told USA TODAY Sports. "But at the same time, I think I made a lot of changes for the better and I think in my quest to be an advocate against dogfighting and working with the Humane Society, I've helped more animals than I've hurt, and I continue to do that."
Vick says he wrote the book to help others who have made serious mistakes but also to reclaim the narrative of his life, to "tell it my way." Bored in prison and looking for a way to pass time, Vick said he wrote 70 pages in one day.
"People are always going to have their opinions and feel the way that they do," he says in an interview. "You can't change it. The reason I'm writing this book is so people can have an understanding and not just go off of what they see on TV or what they heard, the picture that's been created."
In the book, excerpts of which were provided to USA TODAY Sports by Core Media and Worthy Publishing, Vick describes seeing his first dogfight at 8 years old in Newport News, Va., and a childhood filled with nights interrupted by the sound of gunfire. He also recalls, years later, when he had to explain his crimes and impending jail sentence to his son, Mitez, then 5.
"Your job is to be a role model to your kids and to be the best father figure you can be," he says in an interview, "and it was a situation where I couldn't do that and I had to confess and tell him the truth.
"It was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. Seeing him crying, knowing I had no control over it. It was something that money couldn't get me out of."
The quarterback, 32, last summer signed a six-year contract that included $35.5 million in guaranteed money. He wanted to lay low after he was reinstated in 2009. Vick hoped some team would give him a chance. "I just wanted to fly under the radar. I never wanted 'The Michael Vick Resurgence' or the hoopla," he says.
The Eagles signed him to a modest deal, a move that prompted animal rights activists to picket the team's training facility. Then came the questions, always about his past, always focused on his undoing six years after the Atlanta Falcons drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001.
In 2010, Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson said Vick should have been executed for his crimes, a sentiment that Vick wrote in the book left him "stunned." Vick chose not to respond, and Carlson later backed off his remarks.
Vick has avoided controversy. He lived up to his pledge to become an advocate for animal welfare and won the NFL's 2010 comeback player of the year award. He appeared in public service announcements for the Humane Society and lobbied Congress to pass a law that would make it a misdemeanor to watch illegal animal fights and a felony for adults to bring children to such events.
On the field, Vick earned the starting job in 2010 and had the best season of his career, passing for 3,018 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
"I thank God," he says. "With success comes a lot of responsibility. This is my responsibility. Because it's not just about me, it's about every kid that I can affect."
Tough questions still come
At the launch of his apparel line at a Philadelphia store last week, Vick was surrounded by family, friends and fans, with no sign of protesters. Still, Vick knows another question about dogfighting is always coming.
"It's definitely a part of who he is," says his wife, Kijafa. The two have a pair of daughters: Jada, 7, and London, 4, who was born a month before Vick went to prison. Vick's son is from a previous relationship with his high school sweetheart, Tameka Taylor.
"He can't run from his past all the time," Kijafa Vick said. "He has to answer questions about it. Accept responsibility. And I think he does a fairly good job of it. Of course you get tired of it, because it's a negative thing and he's trying to get past it. He understands that it's a part of his life and he has to try and make the best out of it."
With his daughters clinging to his calf-length shorts at a news conference, Vick held up a black-and-red shirt that read "Mental toughness." A portion of the proceeds from his clothing line will go to Philadelphia-area Boys & Girls Clubs, and a portion of the book proceeds will go to Philadelphia- and Newport News-area charities yet to be named.
In a foreword written for the book by Tony Dungy, the former NFL head coach and Vick mentor discusses the challenge of winning over those who celebrated his imprisonment. Dungy declined to be interviewed for this story.
"I had gotten letters and phone calls vilifying me for even going to see him, so I couldn't imagine what he would face once he got out," Dungy writes. "He was going to have to do it with actions, not words."
The first actions came on a football field, with Vick's return to NFL stardom that Dungy wrote even he "didn't have faith he could accomplish."
Supremely confident, Vick says he's in better shape than most of the current rookies and credits good genes. But Vick's freewheeling style has often kept him out of the game - he rushed for 589 yards last season but missed three games because of injury. The left-hander has started all 16 games in a season once, in 2006 with the Falcons, yet he seems unfazed by the prospect of more punishment, including concussions.
"I've taken some hard shots," he says. "Part of the game, the integrity of the game, the grit, the guile that you've got to have, is getting up. It's a rough game. It's a man's game. Get up. If you can't, then lay there; the paramedics can come get you. And you get back up, you brush yourself off and you do it again in two or three weeks."
Vick says he chooses to play and is aware of the "consequences that may come along with it. For the most part, I don't even worry about it."
In a radio interview Friday, he told fans he would do more to protect himself this season. In his book, Vick promises devoted Eagles fans an NFL championship.
It all fits into his post-prison plan. "I just wanted to live a low-key life, to play football and compete every Sunday and try to win a championship," he says.
If Vick does bring Philadelphia its first Super Bowl win, low-key will not be an option.