NEW YORK — Locked up for 20 months for illegally carrying and firing a gun at a Manhattan nightclub, Plaxico Burress is ready to walk out of prison and face another grim reality, a lockout that could jeopardize the resumption of his football career.
The former New York Giants receiver who caught the game-winning pass in the 2008 Super Bowl is set to leave the Oneida Correctional Facility in upstate New York on Monday. Burress, who turns 34 in August, plans to return to his Florida home to spend time with his wife, son and a daughter born while he was in jail.
Unlike Michael Vick, released in 2009 from a federal term for dogfighting, Burress doesn’t have a league waiting to bid on his services.
But “he will play in the NFL this year,” Drew Rosenhaus, Burress’ agent, said in an email to The Associated Press. “Many teams want him. He will be a top free agent. He is healthy and ready to go. He will be signed shortly after the lockout ends.”
Burress’ release caps a more than three-year saga that saw yet another athlete put behind bars, separated from family and friends and losing the riches and lifestyle most only dream about.
“You go from being the absolute hero to finding yourself in jail for a mistake in judgment,” Peter M. Frankel, Burress’ attorney, told the AP in an interview. “It’s really a tragic story.”
Burress was at the pinnacle of his career when everything went south.
The lanky 6-foot-5 receiver seemingly had a career-defining moment when he caught a 13-yard pass from Eli Manning with 35 seconds to play to give the Giants a stunning 17-14 win over the undefeated New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl.
Nine months later his world unraveled. Burress, with a handgun tucked in his sweatpants, hit a a New York City nightclub with then Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce. Burress’ weapon slipped from his waistband and discharged as he attempted to grab it, injuring him in the thigh. The bullet narrowly missed a security guard, prosecutors said.
Burress’ wound was not serious. The fallout was disastrous.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for him to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and was irate that officials at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center treated Burress and failed to report the shooting, as required by law. A doctor who treated Burress was later suspended.
Burress was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2009 after pleading guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon. The gun was not licensed in New York or in New Jersey, where Burress lived. His license to carry a concealed weapon in Florida had expired in May 2008.
His attorney has said he carried the gun because he feared for his safety after the slayings of NFL players Sean Taylor and Darrent Williams the year before.
Said Frankel: “I don’t think that he will ever believe that the punishment fit the crime,” but prison has given Burress “a new appreciation” for his family and good fortune.
Mateen Cleaves, a former NBA player and a friend of Burress from their days at Michigan State, said he visited the player in prison earlier this year.
“It was hard to see him in that situation, but he made it easier on me because he was upbeat and in good spirits” Cleaves said. “Some people can turn a negative into a positive, and he’s one of those people.”
Some believe Burress has taken the lesson of his experience seriously, including the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a prominent advocacy group that pressed for him to go to prison but supported his unsuccessful bid to get work release last year.
Held in protective custody because of his celebrity status, Burress didn’t have a cellmate but was able to socialize with others in his unit, including “Sopranos” actor Lillo Brancato Jr., who’s serving 10 years on an attempted burglary conviction.
Burress worked as a grounds maintenance laborer, completed an 100-hour anger management course and tutored other inmates in reading, writing and math. His wife, who’s a lawyer, visited frequently with his young children, Frankel said.
At Oneida Correctional Facility, he had some brushes with prison discipline, too.
At various points, prison officers said he lied to get to use the phone at a time when calls weren’t usually allowed, gave another inmate a pair of sneakers (considered an “unauthorized exchange”) and had three dozen cassette tapes and an extra, state-issued pillow in a “filthy” cell strewn with bags of food, dirty clothes, books and mail, prison records obtained by the AP show. The infractions — considered minor — cost him recreation, phone and other privileges at times, and he was told to clean up his room.
Still, Burress “really bent over backward to try and learn what the rules and regulations were, to try to comply,” Frankel said.
That ends Monday upon his release.
“We are grateful that Plaxico will be reunited with his family,” Giants co-owner John Mara said Thursday. “His release from prison is long overdue.”
Burress will face no further disciplinary action by the NFL. His league suspension was concurrent with his jail term.
Former Giants teammate Osi Umenyiora said the lockout may work in Burress’ favor because he will have time to train and get ready for the season.
“He will be great when he comes out and play very well like he always has, I’m sure,” said Umenyiora, who said he visited Burress in prison. “I know many teams will give him a chance because he has rare talent and ability. Overall I’m sad for what he went through, but glad that that time period is over.”
The Giants have said they will keep their options open when Burress comes on the market after missing two seasons. But Vick, who served a 23-month federal sentence for running a dogfighting ring, has shown it is possible to successfully return to the league.
After missing two full seasons and playing sparingly in 2010, the 30-year-old set career highs in passing yards (3,018), passing touchdowns (21), rushing touchdowns (9), completion percentage (62.6) and passer rating (100.2) this past season in leading the Eagles to the NFC East title, earning The Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award.
Vick said in a radio interview with WIP in Philadelphia that Burress would be a great fit with the Eagles.
“I think certainly Plaxico is going to come out with a chip on his shoulder the same way I did, and he’ll go out and help this football team to whatever capacity he can,” Vick said. “I think the guys would be willing to embrace him and bring him in. If that happens? Who knows? We talking about “what ifs” now? It would certainly be a good thing.”