Plaxico Burress Takes Another Shot
Credit: Johnny Nunez / Getty Images
It is, by now, a dance so ritualized that we know the steps cold beforehand. Famous athlete goes out and does something cardinally stupid – murders dogs for sport; pushes sex on drunk coeds; hits and kills an immigrant with his Bentley. Famous athlete is sent to prison, where he promptly discovers Jesus, who appears to him in the form of Tony Dungy. Famous athlete gets out of jail eager to do the Lord's bidding, which mostly seems to involve returning to football and setting up his wife in a reality series, with the occasional inconvenience of a Boys' Club visit, the news of which is pre-tweeted to reporters.

But the screwy thing about Burress, at least for those who know him, was that no one ever figured him to be that guy. From earliest boyhood, there'd been this sweetness about him, an affable blend of naïveté and soul that everyone but Tom Coughlin would find endearing. A record-setting sprinter, all-state receiver, and disengaged student at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach, he was another in a line of sandlot legends from the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. (Notable alumni: Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, and, 20 years before them, Bruce Smith and Lawrence Taylor.) He was reared in the Twin Canal projects, a community so deep in guns and goons that the police manned barricades to keep the locals in and their visitors/clients out. Burress dabbled in the street life, selling dime bags of weed and partying past the cop-enforced curfew. But he didn't have the makeup to be a thug, and everyone knew it. "There was something about Plax: People sheltered him, even the knuckleheads he sometimes ran with," says Cedric Warren, Burress's best friend from childhood, who went on to play at Florida before breaking his neck; he's now an admissions officer at a Las Vegas college. "If it was about to go down, they'd tell him to run home and come back later."

Burress drew his disposition from his single mom, Adelaide, who worked two jobs to feed her three sons while putting herself through night school to become a nurse. "My mom was it, the whole world to me. She'd literally go without to see us fed," he says. "I never met my dad till I was going to college, though he lived like only 20 minutes away. Me and him built a relationship while I was in jail, but she's the one who made me what I am."

Soon after the Steelers picked him eighth overall in the 2000 draft (he had shattered records for receptions and yards in two breakout seasons at Michigan State), he bought his mom a house and retired her young, at the age of 46. But a couple of years later, she took ill and died of a leg infection, postsurgery. Burress was so stricken that he nearly quit football and credits then-coach Bill Cowher for nursing him through the loss. "He spoke at my mom's funeral and let me grieve properly, told me to take the time off that I needed. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him."

In retrospect, Burress might have been best off staying put when he hit free agency in '05. But the Steelers couldn't pay both him and Hines Ward, and so Burress took his talents to New York. "I called up Cowher before we made the offer and found out Plax was a good kid," says Ernie Accorsi, the retired Giants GM who largely built the team that won the Super Bowl. "He's eccentric, for sure, but has a beautiful heart. The letters he wrote me from jail, I'll keep forever." Burress lost no time, though, driving Coughlin batshit, almost missing a team flight because he forgot his black socks (a Coughlin rule) and not bothering to show for a day's worth of meetings, neglecting to call and say why. "He's not a real positive coach," says Burress of the tensions that quickly built between them. "You look around the league, the Raheem Morrises and Rex Ryans  – when their player makes a mistake, they take 'em to the side and say, 'We'll get 'em next time.' But Coughlin's on the sideline going crazy, man. I can't remember one time when he tried to talk a player through not having a day he was having."

Still, Burress played his heart out for the Giants, often in grinding pain. In a Week 2 game of the 2007-'08 championship season, he ripped the deltoid ligament off the bone of his right ankle, an injury that almost always ends a player's year. According to Burress, he struck a deal with management to try and gut it out so long as they excused him from practice. Then, in Week 13, he made a cut in Chicago and collapsed on the rain-soaked field, having sheared the medial-collateral ligament in his left knee. Burress taped it heavily and played the season out, refusing to take a needle for the pain. He caught 12 touchdowns, the fourth most in the league, limped, somehow, to another 1,000-yard season, and single-handedly carved up the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, bucking the 30-below windchill and a separated shoulder to catch 11 passes for 151 yards, both of which stand as franchise playoff records.

By Super Bowl week he could barely walk – and that was before he slipped and fell in the hotel shower and further strained his damaged MCL. Burress took shots of Toradol both before the game and then again at halftime, but couldn't veer right off his wobbly knee and only caught two balls the entire game. That second one, though, was for the ages, a post-route shimmy that left Patriots safety Ellis Hobbs practically leg-broke and shoeless on the championship-winning pass. It was the most stirring touchdown in Giants history, but like all things Burress, it was complicated, marred by sore feelings and bruised pride.

"It was hurtful that they didn't have the courage [after the season] to admit they told me not to practice all year," he says of the Giants management – specifically, Jerry Reese, then the team's first-year GM. "They let the media tear me apart, saying I was dogging practice, that I wasn't a team player, all this shit. The players thought I was pissing on 'em, and Coach Coughlin hated it because he was out of the loop: The orders came from upstairs. And meanwhile, he's on the sideline cursing me out 'cause I got a ball punched out against Green Bay. I just stared at him like, Are you out of your fucking mind? I got a separated shoulder and can't run!"