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?"
If your life for 20 months is a tiny cell in an icehouse of a prison (average annual snowfall in Rome, New York: 104 inches), there are worse places to defrost than a sumptuous second home in Lighthouse Point, a yacht-club playground off the Intercoastal Waterway in Florida's Broward County. Set on a particularly sleek block of postmoderns, Burress's big house so dwarfs his neighbors' that they look like tugs hauling in the QE2. There is a man standing outside it with a videocam, another rolling tape in the entryway, and a pair of nannies chasing after Burress's children, including a highly mobile toddler named Giovanna, born after he went away to jail. "We're doing a reality show," says Tiffany, Burress's camera-ready wife, cracking eggs into a skillet for her kids. "They've been shooting us since the day he got out of prison."
A tall, flawless woman in exquisite tone (she was an Olympic-caliber sprinter at Penn State before she became an attorney), Tiffany excuses herself to change into a tight sheath and heels. Burress, gone to Starbucks, arrives 40 minutes late, though it's instantly clear why the New York Jets wagered $3 million on an ex-con. For one thing, he all but floats when he walks, having fully healed the knee and ankle tears that dogged his last seasons with the Giants. For another, he's bigger and sharper through the trunk than before he went to jail, putting 12 pounds of muscle on his chest and shoulders in savage nightly workouts at Oneida.
He is leading me through the foyer when his daughter pounces, launching herself into his arms. Tiny as she is, she has his demeanor, the Texas-hold-'em stare and blank expression. He lifts her to his chest and holds her there, communing nose to nose as she strokes his beard. "That right there is what I lost," he mutters after handing her over to the sitter. "I'll never get those years with her back."
Draping his 6-foot-5 frame on a leather recliner in his lavish home theater down the hall, he speaks for five hours about his stretch in jail and the events that led to his arrest. He is frank about the hell it wrought on him and his family, weeping as he talks about his son, Elijah, whose melancholy eyes in the snapshots Tiffany sent stabbed him through the heart. "I told her, 'Stop sending pictures because they eat me up so much.' Me and her were arguing on the phone each day, 'cause I was locked down in a lot of pain, and she's in pain about her life outside, being alone with a kid and seven months pregnant. Then at chow, these white officers are yelling, 'You black motherfucker! You stupid fucking dumbass: You're finished!' It was the lowest point ever in my life."
Furious at the world when he went in – "The way Bloomberg treated me," he says even now, "was totally wrong, stacked those charges so high I had to go to jail" – he gradually trained the anger on himself, picking apart the mind-set that put him there. "I was an edge-goer at times, running the streets and living life and not spending time with my family. Or taking risks and not thinking about the consequences, which gave them the chance to take me down."
Barely able to leave his cell the first five months because of the depression that overwhelmed him, he lay on his bunk reading the deluge of letters that reached him every day. "A lot of them that wrote, I was a human pincushion; they were like, 'Yeah, we finally got you, motherfucker!' On the cover of the New York Post, it said giant idiot! and I'm thinking, Damn, I went and gave 'em what they wanted. I'm just another gun-toting, famous black athlete."
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!"
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."
Bizarrely, Burress made the Giants the very first call on his tour of teams seeking a dent-sale wide receiver. The visit went pleasantly, all agree, and every notable Giant stepped out of team meetings to shake his hand but one: Manning. No one was terribly shocked, then, when Burress decided a day later to sign on the cheap with the Jets. All things considered – his age and ankle problems, the enormously checkered history off the field – he was going to have to take a make-good deal, a one-year term for short money. "We did a rental with Santonio Holmes, and now he's a captain, and I hope the same happens with Plax," says Jets coach Rex Ryan. "He's the prototype X" – i.e., prime receiver – "who'll be a huge target in our red-zone offense, which wasn't what it could've been last year." Asked if Burress's past had given him pause, Ryan scoffs. "I've been given second chances. If not, I wouldn't be here. Everyone's made mistakes in their life, and we've welcomed him with open arms."
The Jets aren't the only ones. Wherever Burress goes now, people stop him on the street to offer hugs and wishes, and the letters he gets, once chock-full of rage, gush in sympathy. "They went from, 'How could you do that to yourself?' to 'How could they do you like that?'" he says, laughing. "It's like I'm more popular now for shooting myself than winning a Super Bowl!" Asked why that might be so, he grunts, reflecting. "Maybe they see a guy who made a mistake but didn't hurt no one but himself. I mean, if you can't root for me, you must not own a mirror. All of us have made a big mistake, right?"
And with that Burress stands and stretches, fixes his body mic, and goes upstairs to film a reality show.