SUSSEX, Va. - With a steady gaze and another apology, Michael Vick took an important step toward returning to pro football.
The former star quarterback pleaded guilty to a state dogfighting charge Tuesday, and the prosecutor dropped an animal cruelty count. Surry Circuit Judge Samuel Campbell accepted the deal and gave Vick a suspended three-year sentence - far less than the maximum 10-year term he could have faced.
The move clears the way for Vick's possible transition to a halfway house, and brings his aim of another chance at professional football closer.
"I want to apologize to the court, my family, and to all the kids who looked up to me as a role model," Vick told the judge.
Vick was temporarily brought back to Virginia from Leavenworth, Kan., where he is serving a 23-month sentence after pleading guilty to bankrolling a dogfighting operation. In the federal case, Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls that did not perform well in test fights, including by electrocution, drowning and hanging.
Vick remained in Virginia on Tuesday afternoon awaiting transport back to Kansas. He is scheduled for release next July 20, and will serve three years of probation. He also has been suspended by the NFL and would need commissioner Roger Goodell's approval before rejoining the league.
His latest plea is important because it resolves the remaining charges against him, which is required under federal law if he is to move into a halfway house.
The gruesome details of Vick's involvement with dogfighting prompted a public backlash against the once-popular Atlanta Falcons quarterback and outraged animal-rights groups, which used the case to call attention to the brutality of dogfighting.
Prosecutor Gerald Poindexter defended dropping the animal cruelty charge and not asking for additional prison time for Vick.
"I feel that what I did today is approved by more than a majority of Surry County, and that's the constituency that I'm concerned about," he said.
Vick, 28, arrived wearing wrist and ankle shackles with his gray suit, but the restraints were removed by the time he entered his plea.
His mother Brenda Boddie, brother Marcus Vick and fiancee Kijafa Frink sat together in the front row of the gallery with other family and friends. Vick's mother declined to comment to reporters but Marcus Vick acknowledged the family was glad the ordeal was nearly at an end.
Vick was stoic throughout the approximately 20-minute hearing. Afterward, he turned to his young daughter and winked.
After the hearing, Poindexter approached Vick's mother and hugged her, saying, "At least some of this is over."
Vick's agent Joel Segal attended the hearing and afterward wouldn't talk specifically about a possible return to the NFL, saying only, "Mike takes full responsibility for his actions and is ready to more forward and will let his actions speak for him."
Once the highest paid player in the NFL, Vick appeared about as trim Tuesday as when he entered prison a year ago. His lawyer, Billy Martin, said Vick's legal team hasn't been involved in any preliminary steps to revive the suspended player's career, focusing instead on reuniting him with his family.
"Michael as a human being is clearly somebody that we want to salvage," Martin said. "Michael as a football player is somebody that down the road may get a chance to look again."
The trick may be finding a team ready to take a risk on the former quarterback.
Atlanta still has Vick under contract. But Falcons owner Arthur Blank made clear late last month the three-time Pro Bowl selection won't wear that team's uniform again.
"I hope they're prepared to face the dog lovers of America," Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson said earlier of a team that acquires Vick. "There are going to be a lot of problems. People love their pets, and particularly dogs. There will be protests, people expressing their thoughts - even though he's served his time."
Vick's problems have compounded since his federal conviction in 2007. He's landed in bankruptcy court after losing nearly all of his record-breaking $130 million from a 10-year deal he signed with Atlanta in December 2004.
Nine protesters from the animal rights group PETA stood quietly outside the courthouse before the hearing, holding signs with photographs of bloodied fighting dogs and others that read "Dogfighters repent."
Asked how activists would respond if the NFL takes Vick back, Dan Shannon, assistant director of PETA, said Vick must speak out against dogfighting as someone who "participated in dogfighting and saw it ruin everything he built for himself and take away all his fame, all his fortune, all of his respect."
"If he chooses to do that, that's the only way I think he could ever be seen as any kind of a positive public figure," Shannon said.