At the Oneida Correctional Facility in Rome, New York, where a number of the white guards called him a black motherfucker to his face and taunted him for the fortune he'd tossed away, Plaxico Burress lay awake at 2 a.m., rewinding, frame by frame, the night in 2008 that exploded, with a single, shattering thud, both his high-flying career as a premier wide-out and the franchise he'd just won a Super Bowl for, the New York Giants. The few friends he'd made in jail told him to let it go, that he couldn't fix the past from his 8-by-10 cell, but they hadn't kissed off a seven-months-pregnant wife, a two-year-old son whose photos made him cry, and the last big contract he'd ever sign, almost $30 million down the drain. Stuck for 20 months in an airtight tube – no laptop, no TV, not even a stool to sit on – he had nothing but the past to occupy him.
"November 28th: I'll never forget," he says. "You know, I never went out on Fridays, but I'd hurt my hamstring so I wasn't gonna play that week." He met up with his boys at an Applebee's in New Jersey, a crew of Giants receivers eating steaks and talking shit about their clench-faced coach, Tom Coughlin. Three hours later Burress was ready to pack it in when he got a call from tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, cajoling him to go clubbing in the city. Burress mulled it over and made the first in a daisy chain of spectacularly lousy choices, telling Bradshaw he'd pick him up. Bradshaw lived kitty-corner from Giants receiver Steve Smith, who, three days earlier, had been robbed at gunpoint on the stoop of his house in Clifton, New Jersey. A few weeks before that, someone had tried to rob Burress, kicking in his back door in nearby Totowa before his very large watchdog ran the intruder off. And all this was shaded by the worst shock of all: the home break-in and brutal murder less than 48 hours earlier of Burress's dear friend, Sean Taylor, the Pro Bowl safety of the Washington Redskins. Burress weighed these out and decided to swing home first, where he'd fetch his gun, a Glock .40. He laid the loaded pistol on the seat beside him, then peeled his black Maybach out of the drive.
In the city, they set it off at a club called HeadQuarters, a gold-plated strip joint where they were feted like pashas: comped bottles of champagne and close attention from the girls, standard treatment in a grateful town still soaking up its Super Bowl win. Then, around midnight, came a call from Antonio Pierce. The Giants linebacker was at Latin Quarter, a rowdy hip-hop spot renowned for hot models and shots-fired melees. Burress, with Bradshaw, drove east to meet Pierce there. In his car outside the club, Burress patted his waist, where he'd tucked the Glock, unholstered and safety off. "I'm about to get out when it goes through my mind: Maybe I should leave the gun in the car. I actually thought it over, had a conscience about it – but said, Nope, I'm takin' it with me. And that changed my life."
Inside, Burress lit up the metal detectors. He hiked his shirt to show the bouncers his gun; they winked and waved him through, even dispatching a guard to watch his back. At the bar downstairs, they were mobbed by clubgoers, so security steered them up to VIP. But the club's back staircase was mine-shaft dark, and in the tumult and crush, Burress missed a step and felt the gun sliding down his pants. He lurched to trap it against his right thigh and saw a streak of blue flame light his jeans. "Nobody heard the pop, the club was so loud. I thought, Damn, I hope no one got hurt." In fact, the bullet had torn through his quadriceps and missed a security guard by a foot. "I didn't even feel it till I got to the top stair and saw the toe of my Chucks covered in red. That's when the pain came, and it was excruciating. I'm like, Fuck, am I gonna die here tonight?"
Pierce saw Burress's pant leg soaked in blood. "No, One-Seven!" he wailed, calling him by his jersey number. They got him downstairs and into the back of a truck, where Burress tasked the guards to retrieve his gun. Though dozens of people had seen him hobble out and though dozens more would spot him at NewYork-Presbyterian, where he was rushed into treatment at 2 am, ashen and faint from blood loss, it's a measure of his unsavviness that he thought he could pretend that none of this had happened. "I'm thinking, The gun's licensed in Florida" – actually, it wasn't; his permit had lapsed months earlier – "and the license is valid in 35 states" – but not in New York, where practically no one can carry – "and even if I'm in trouble in New York City, we'll get over that 'cause I live in New Jersey." As he lay on the gurney getting his leg stitched (the slug missed his femoral artery by an inch), he thought, I got a four-week hamstring injury and a three-week flesh wound; I'll heal this up and no one'll know the difference.
That detachment, born of superstar privilege, had a shelf life of two more days. The following Monday, cuffed and shoved into a holding cell at Manhattan's 17th Precinct, Burress sat down with his lawyer, Ben Brafman. They'd struck a deal, or so they thought, to post minimal bail and send Burress home to his wife, Tiffany, and son, Elijah. But just minutes before the hearing, the city's mayor, Mike Bloomberg, had stepped to a podium and vowed furiously to the press that he'd make an example of Burress, send him off to jail for the maximum term. Burress stared at Brafman, his aloofness finally cracking. "Who," he asked, "is this Mayor Bloomberg guy?"