PLANO, Texas -- While NFL coaches, players and analysts have speculated how Michael Vick will fare in returning to pro football after two years in prison, his closest mentor, former Colts head coach Tony Dungy, said Vick will succeed only by putting his faith in God.
"I know Michael feels he's let a lot of people down and disappointed a lot of fans and family, but I told him the only way you can correct that is to put yourself in the Lord's hands and let Him guide you.
"After speaking with Michael, he's given me hope that he's headed in the right direction."
Dungy spoke to Baptist Press Monday afternoon in advance of his inaugural "Tony Dungy's Red Zone '09," a high school football kickoff event to be shown in more than 450 movie theaters tonight nationwide.
Through the Red Zone event, Dungy hopes to show young players that talent and character go hand in hand and that making right choices is important both on and off the field.
Since retiring from the Colts last January, Dungy has been involved in a number of projects off the field, including joining NBC Sports as a commentator. But Dungy has gained the most attention as Vick's mentor for his return to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Dungy's readiness to share his faith in Christ, evidenced in his two best-selling books and in media interviews, led him to the federal medium-security prison in Leavenworth, Kan., to meet Vick at the request of Vick's attorney.
"I had been in a lot of prisons and seen the orange jump suits and the 15-by-15-foot cell, and that's what I saw with Michael," Dungy said when recounting previously unknown details of his visit with Vick during the spring.
Dungy had been in Vick's cell less than five minutes when he turned the conversation to what he regards as the central issue in Vick's fall from pro football grace.
"I asked Michael, 'Where was the Lord in all of this?' because I wanted to know about his personal faith in Jesus."
Dungy said Vick told him about going to church almost every week with his mother in Virginia and knowing there was a God. He said Vick talked to God while growing up and continued to pray during college at Virginia Tech.
But when he finally made it to the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, his faith and his life took a turn for the worse.
"Michael said he felt God had answered his prayers by getting into the NFL and maybe he didn't really need Him anymore."
During his two years in prison for his role in operating a dog fighting ring, Vick had a chance to rediscover his prayers and his faith in God, Dungy said.
"Now he knows he does need God and that's going to help him make right decisions."
Dungy, who dealt with all kinds of players in his 30 years of coaching, said Vick has the possibility to becoming a Christian role model. But Vick faces plenty of scrutiny, such as a recent report of him having a drink of vodka and pineapple juice at a Philadelphia airport restaurant.
"You can't do that," Dungy was quoted by Sports Illustrated as telling Vick publicly after the incident.
"I think Michael will be a testimony to young people and have some good things to say them," Dungy told Baptist Press. If Vick succeeds in his comeback, especially off the field, it "lets young people know these are real people and real problems and this is how they have been able to overcome them."
For Dungy, the chance to be a positive role model and a Christian witness while on a national stage is what drives him after stepping away from the NFL sideline.
"Sometimes people are uncomfortable about you talking about the Lord and they will take it out [edit it out] on purpose, but if you say it enough times, are honest and live your life the right way, you will get enough chances to be a witness and it will come out."
Dungy said players like Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner stir him to keep sharing his faith in the most winsome way to convicted felons, national media audiences and football teams everywhere.
"That's what you have to pray for, the right setting, the right time and it comes out the right way -- like how Reggie White did," Dungy said of the late Hall of Fame defensive lineman and outspoken Christian.
That is part of why Dungy is headlining tonight's Red Zone kickoff in movie theaters coast to coast. (A list of participating theaters can be accessed at www.redzonelive.com.)
The Red Zone website states that the high school kickoff event will include "inside tips on football from professional coaches and players, plus cover conditioning, increasing performance and mental toughness while providing inspiration, playing with passion and personal character development. It will challenge young players to avoid drugs, play clean and learn the benefits of hard work."
Among the featured guests: University of Southern California head coach Pete Carroll and, from the NFL, quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Jim Sorgi, Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, place kicker Adam Vinatieri, running back Joseph Addai and tight end Dallas Clark.
The two-hour event was taped at the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano on Monday night before an audience of 3,500 players, coaches and fans. Jack Graham, the church's pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention president, also addressed the crowd.
For his part, Dungy hopes the event helps young athletes know that "the most important thing is to become good husbands and fathers, and the most important thing for these young guys is to get the good news about the Gospel."
Since retiring from coaching, Dungy said he has enjoyed the chance to be in his home church more often, Central Tampa Baptist Church led by pastor Jeff Singletary.
"I'm really enjoying being there and getting something out of it, but also using it as a ministry outlet to help others as well," Dungy said.