Plaxico Burress Takes Another Shot
Credit: Johnny Nunez / Getty Images
His first week at Oneida, Burress bawled like a teen sent off to juvie jail. "I cried and cried in disbelief. I was like, 'Someone's gonna get me out tomorrow.'" After his hellish introduction to inmate life – "They treated me like a fucking axe murderer," he says, "23-hour lockdown, noncontact visiting, and only a Bible to read. Nobody deserves to live like that, man" – Burress began to find his way. He was moved to a protective-custody unit, where he had his own cell and hours of yard time, which he used to full advantage in his training. "We had a 30-yard strip where I ran shuttles to get in shape, ran till I couldn't run no more. I'd be out in minus-14, running sprints in the snow and lifting weights with ice on the bar. Guys'd be at their windows yelling, 'Fuck the Giants! You need to sign with the Jets when you get out!'" He plied his days with books, devouring texts on business and civil rights bios, filling in the gaps in his learning. "I'd always been lazy in my approach to education, thought you were either born smart or you weren't. In jail, though, I saw that the brain is a muscle: If you challenge it, it gets stronger. I actually wrote a letter to my high school history teacher, saying, 'I'm so sorry, man. I thought the only way out for me was to be successful at sports.' "

And bit by bit, Burress the diva receiver – the one who'd flung his hands up when QBs underthrew him or he didn't get a call from the back official – learned to suck it up. Guards rousted him from his cell to mop stairs and haul trash and woke him early to shovel snow from one big pile to another. Instead of talking back, he wrote the commissioner of state prisons, complaining about the appalling lack of rehab at Oneida. "It was funded for substance training and anger-management classes but had no programs there. And now, because I wrote, they have those programs in place and guys are getting merit time. They'd come to my unit and say, 'Hey, man, thanks. I wouldn't be going home now if not for you.'"

If you take your read from that, and from his rueful jailhouse letters to Steve Tisch and John Mara, the Giants' co-owners, you're inclined to think that Burress had an awakening while upstate. He talks, with feeling, about wanting to "serve a purpose," about "bringing people along" as he starts life over. Near the end of his bid, he was steered by Dungy to the Urban League and has appeared at several of its public events, speaking against gun violence to kids. He gave the keynote speech at the NFL's rookie symposium this year, addressing 300 first-year players and scaring them straight with his story. "I told them, 10 years ago I was sitting where you're at and not trying to hear this shit. But I threw away $12 million these last two years, and half of you will never even see that. I made a choice and lost everything: my contract, my Nike deal, and the birth of my daughter. That ain't some dude talking; it actually happened."

But talk to Burress long enough and you may leave with the sense of a man who wants it both ways. He concedes he did the crime but is bitter about the time, calling the harsh sentence pointless. "People expect me to change – man, change from what? What are we supposed to get out of this?" Convinced he was singled out by Bloomberg and the courts, he rails, "They charged me with criminal possession of a gun – that I own! Charged me with a violent felony – on myself!" Regarding the fans who "took pleasure" in his confinement, he says, "What are you doing now? You still mad at your job? You still angry about your life? 'Cause I'm back living my life and enjoying my family while you're still doing the same thing."

Nor did his stretch in prison salve sore feelings toward certain members of the Giants. In fact, it effectively ended his friendship with Eli Manning – one that had carried both men to high places. They'd formed a bond from the day they were brought together, joking and sticking grapes in each other's shoes, watching film on Friday nights, just the two of them, and developing a private language of nods and gestures at the line of scrimmage. "I was always his biggest supporter, even days he wasn't on, 'cause I could sense he didn't have thick skin," says Burress. "Then I went away, and I thought he would come see me, but nothing, not a letter, in two years. I don't want to say it was a slap in the face, but I thought our relationship was better than that."

His deepest aggravation, though, is directed at Coughlin. "After my situation happened," he says, "I turned on the TV, and the first words out his mouth was 'sad and disappointing.' I'm like, forget support – how about some concern? I did just have a bullet in my leg. And then I sat in his office, and he pushed back his chair and goes, 'I'm glad you didn't kill anybody!' Man, we're paid too much to be treated like kids. He doesn't realize that we're grown men and actually have kids of our own."