All odds were stacked against the pit bulls rescued from NFL star quarterback Michael Vick’s notorious dogfighting ring. Forced to fight for their lives, they were considered so dangerous both PETA and the Humane Society of the United States wanted them euthanized.  But no one could have predicted how the dogs would change the lives of those who risked everything to save them.


The Champions is an inspirational story about the pit bulls rescued from the brutal fighting ring of former Atlanta Falcon’s star quarterback Michael Vick, and those who risked it all to save them, despite pressure from PETA and The Humane Society of the United States to euthanize the dogs.  It is a story of second-chances, redemption and hope. This uplifting documentary takes us on a journey about much more than just dogs—about prejudice, being misunderstood, the power of resilience, and the significance of the relationship we as humans have with animals.


When the news broke that former Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback Michael Vick was implicated in a long running illegal dog-fighting ring, the case shone a public light into the world of dog fighting.  It showed the human spirit at its most degraded, a world where men gather in secret to gamble and celebrate as dogs are forced to fight to their deaths.  Dogs that refused to fight were tortured, drowned, hanged, and electrocuted.  

Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison, (none for animal cruelty), and later returned to lucrative high-profile career in the NFL.  Left behind in the aftermath were over 50 pit bulls who associated humans with brutality, fear, and fighting.  The judicial system had saved them from the ring, but what next?  The Humane Society of the United States considered them to be the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country.  PETA described them as a “ticking time bomb.”  But, as one of the attorneys involved in the case explains, the general public and animal welfare advocates started asking the prosecutors “why do you have to kill these dogs?”  The prosecutor said he received more calls and emails about the fate of the dogs than when a terrorist was arrested.  The judge who decided their fate said he received over 3,000 emails and his assistant was taking 200 calls per day about the case at the time. 

A handful of organizations stepped up to this challenge, recognizing the dogs as the victims and willing to give them a second chance. BADRAP, a pit bull focused advocacy and rescue organization based in Oakland CA, welcomed ten dogs with a variety of personalities and challenges into their foster network. Best Friends Animal Society agreed to take 22 dogs that no one else could, the dogs many considered the most challenging.  Even though the unique no-kill animal sanctuary, based in Southern Utah, had an extremely qualified and dedicated full-time staff of veterinarians, trainers, and caregivers, they were unsure whether or not they would succeed.  They hoped that with time, patience, and dedication, they could rehabilitate some, if not all of the dogs, and eventually find many of them loving adoptive homes.  Best Friends had taken on difficult dogs before in their almost 30 year history, but this would be their biggest challenge yet, and they were putting their reputation—and more importantly, that of the entire breed—on the line.

The documentary The Champions, follows five of the dogs, from the time they are first rescued through their adoption.  It is not just about the dogs themselves, but how they change and inspire the people who come into their lives.  It also follows-up with six dogs who remain at Best Friends to this day, some of them for life.  Thanks to the work of Best Friends and BADRAP, dozens of the dogs who would have summarily been killed were given a second chance to prove that even fighting dogs rescued from the most extreme circumstances can be successfully rehabilitated with love, time, and patience.  That in fact, what many of these dogs need to thrive isn’t rehabilitation at all, but time to recover.

Today, a majority of the dogs have successfully been placed into loving, adoptive homes.  Their story proves that even creatures who have suffered the most unimaginable abuse have amazing strength, spirit, and resilience. It is a story of the bonds of trust and love we have with animals and their importance in our lives, a relationship that has the potential to bring out the best in the human and animal spirit.

The film also highlights breed discrimination towards pit-bull type dogs and what that looks and feels like with a segment about professional baseball player Mark Buehrle and his family. Breed discrimination happens across the country and can take a number of different forms, but the Buehrle’s story is interesting because in an unusual twist of fate, and because of Mark’s career as a professional baseball pitcher, they experienced it both in Miami-Dade county and in Toronto. Their story is especially touching because while they have faced criticism for choosing that the family live apart from Mark during the season, it exemplifies the significance of people’s pets in their lives— one doesn’t simply walk away when there’s trouble once you’ve invited a pet to be part of the family. 

And there is no better time for this topic.  There is much recent press surrounding the lack of accountability of the NFL and its players.  But more importantly, animal welfare issues are on the rise in our society today, from the conditions of animals in factory farms, fur farms, medical research, the exploitation of animals in the name of entertainment, and the unfair banning of pit-bull type dogs from various cities across the country, just because of their breed.  But if Mahatma Gandhi was right that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” this story offers up reasons for hope and signs of progress, and provides an inspirational message for our time.