PHILADELPHIA — In the minutes before giving his first commencement speech, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick professed to be more nervous than before a football game.
He had nothing to worry about. A lovingly raucous crowd of several hundred cheered Vick throughout his remarks Friday to graduates of the alternative Camelot high schools at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
The fact that he surprised a pair of students with $5,000 college scholarships didn’t hurt, either.
The theme of redemption proved to be the heart of the connection between the ex-con NFL superstar and the 450 graduates. Camelot’s six campuses in Philadelphia serve about 1,800 students with emotional, disciplinary or academic problems.
In speeches during Friday’s ceremony and in a private meeting with Vick before the big event, several graduates spoke of rebounding from previous troubles or poor choices to earn a diploma with the second chance they were given at Camelot.
Radames Quinones, 17, who met with Vick, said he ran with a gang, ditched class, assaulted someone and got kicked out of several schools before finding a home at Camelot’s Shallcross Academy in northeast Philadelphia. He hopes to attend culinary school in the fall.
“It was like a family I never had,” Quinones said of the Shallcross staff. “They treat you like their own kids.”
Vick, of course, is the poster child for second chances. The former Atlanta Falcon has rebuilt his career with the Eagles after serving 18 months in prison on dogfighting charges. And the Hampton, Va., native is rebuilding his image by speaking regularly against animal cruelty to schools and community groups.
“I had all the fame and fortune; I thought I was unstoppable,” Vick told the students. But after his conviction, he said, “I lost my freedom, I lost my money, I lost my family.”
He challenged the students to make thoughtful decisions, pursue their goals and make the most of their second chances.
“I stand before you today a changed man,” Vick said. “Use me as an example at how to become an instrument of change ... you can do it as well.”
Vick then announced that grads Monique Joseph and Rickey Savage each would be receiving a scholarship. Joseph plans to attend Penn State in the fall while Savage will go to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.
Neither the students nor their families — not even school staff — knew they would be receiving the funds, Camelot CEO Todd Bock said.
“I heard a little bit about it yesterday, but I had no idea how generous he was going to be to our students,” Bock said after the ceremony. “I think our kids, our schools and our story really resonated with him.”
Savage, 19, said he is grateful to Vick for the financial aid, which will help him study business technology, and for the motivational speech.
Savage said his own second chance came five years ago after being arrested for robbery and assault. A stern talking-to from a judge made him realize he was on a dead-end path, he said.
“Michael Vick, really, he put everything in perspective,” Savage said. “He said it’s not your journey, it’s your destination.”
Vick spokesman Andrew Stroth said the scholarship recipients were chosen based on academic achievement, attendance and participation in student government.
He said Vick plans to give out the $5,000 awards annually.