Plaxico Burress: To Hell And Back To The Meadowlands

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 29: Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants greets Plaxico Burress #17 of the New York Jets after their pre season game on August 29, 2011 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Plaxico Burress faced his old Giants team on Monday night, checking off another stage on his NFL comeback tour in 2011. To explain what makes him so fascinating, let's relive 2008, and look at what a successful Plaxico redemption might mean.

"I had a drink in my left hand, just was walkin' up the stairs. And, you know, It was dark. I kinda, you know, missed a step, and that's when I felt my gun started to slide. I went to grab it, and stop it from falling... BOWWWW." The whole thing still sounds fake.

Plaxico Burress is on HBO's Real Sports, talking to a concerned-looking Bryant Gumbel about the night of November 28, 2008. The night he shot himself. "I knew it had went off," he tells Gumbel almost three years later. "I saw the fire in my jeans."

"I took a couple more steps... I looked down, I had some Chuck Taylors on, the white was all red, and I was like, 'Oh, I'm in trouble.'" Of course, on the "trouble" front, Plaxico had no idea.

His wife is a practicing lawyer, and that night she told him he was going to jail. He didn't believe her. His lawyer later briefed him on the potential severity of the situation, and still Plaxico didn't blink. "I never thought I was gonna go to jail," he told Real Sports this month. "I just thought, 'I own the gun, it's mine, I bought it... How much trouble can I really be in?'"

Then Mayor Bloomberg went on TV and railed against Burress, making it clear that anything less than jail time would set an ugly precedent. "It's pretty hard to argue the guy didn't have a gun and that it wasn't loaded," the Mayor said just a few days after the news of Burress' accident broke. "You've got bullet holes in and out to show that it was there. It would be an outrage if we don't prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."

When told of Bloomberg's press conference, Plaxico asked, "Who is Mayor Bloomberg?"

It all sounds like a lost script from Playmakers, except all of this really happened. And while the rest of us delighted in the spectacle of stupidity, Plaxico went before a Grand Jury to beg for mercy, didn't get it, and spent two years at Rikers Island. Now he's back.

Plaxico

"I don't take no shit from nobody. You gotta earn my respect as a person. You got love for me, I got love for you." Plaxico is describing his public image now. Again, Bryant Gumbel offers a furrowed brow, and fidgets with his upper lip. "Now let me throw some others in there..." Gumbel begins.

There's plenty to throw in. Pre-2008, it wasn't like Plaxico was an angel. Even looking at him now; the first thing he says to describe himself is "I don't take no shit from nobody". Over the course of his career, he's inspired a bevy of civil lawsuits, multiple NFL fines, and in 2008, he had police called to his home twice in consecutive months to settle domestic disturbances.

His performance at a traffic stop in 2009—while facing gun charges and jail time, and with a media spotlight tracing his every step—was a particular highlight. "The embattled gridder followed every question and command with a 'F- - - you,' reported the New York Post at the time.

I'm not mentioning all this to carpet bomb an easy target, but to give you the full context, and help explain why Plaxico in 2011 is so irresistible. First, the obvious points: He torched his career in the biggest media market in the world, and now he's making a comeback in the same city, but for the crosstown rivals. That alone should be enough to make this interesting.

On the field, Plaxico already looks better than expected. He didn't have a catch Monday night's in his triumphant matchup with his old team on Monday, but he drew a Giants safety onto him that freed up Santonio Holmes for a Jets touchdown, and at worst, it looks like he'll be a capable bookend for the Jets. At best, he could be a star for a Super Bowl contender.

As he told HBO, "I'm gonna go out their and I'm gonna play at a high level. And then everybody's gonna go back to scratching their head." And there's a good chance exactly what'll happen.

But there's another layer to all this, and it goes back to the context. Plaxico's not evil, but he still seems like kind of an crappy person. If he becomes a dominant red zone target and the Jets contend for another Super Bowl, people will be scratching their heads, but not for the reasons Plaxico thinks. It won't be "How did he do it?" but "Should we be rooting for him?"

That's what resonated most from watching his interview on Real Sports. A redeemed Plaxico will be much harder to process than Michael Vick. There were no teachable moments that transformed him. And if you're looking for an inspirational redemption story, Plaxico lacks the self awareness to play along.

He mopped floors and passed out meals for two years at Rikers Island, and he says he cried in his cell more times than he count. But listening to him now, he doesn't sound all that different.

On the other hand, if you're looking to make him a villain, you'll have to strain yourself to find something that Plaxico actually did that hurt anyone else. And that's all part of what makes him so perfect for today's NFL, a league that goes to great lengths to paint the game in black and white, hoping that nobody will notice a league that encompasses more moral ambiguity than any pro sport in the world.

For instance, players may not be carrying loaded glocks in their sweatpants, but the NFL's still a place where players spend every Sunday tempting fate with the league's blessing. The league regrets these concussions, but doesn't apologize for them, because "injuries are part of our game."

Likewise, the majority of players obey the NFL's strict code of conduct, but it's not as if Plaxico's some extreme outlier. If anything, Plaxico personifies how a lot of people imagine pro athletes, in general.

What he did was so stereotypically stupid, it seemed scripted. His reaction to the whole ordeal has been defined by regret, but not really contrition, and that fits right along with the stereotype.

Again, he never told Gumbel about his dreams have nothing to do with "a better path" or teaching kids about the dangers of guns. It was just, "I'm gonna go out their and I'm gonna play at a high level. And then everybody's gonna go back to scratching their head."

Watching what happens next will be fascinating because A) there's a decent chance he'll be as good as he says, and B) a return to form for Plaxico would force us to reconcile a character that's as morally ambiguous as the league he plays in. As fans, it's a given that loving the NFL forces us to look past certain elements of arrogance, entitlement, and recklessness that've become endemic to the league's identity. On some level, the NFL's perpetually oblivious to how ridiculous pro football looks to outsiders.

So, see if this makes sense: After everything that's happened, Plaxico Burress is the closest thing the modern-day NFL has to a living, breathing microcosm of its true nature. Publicly regretful but not really contrite, oblivious to how ridiculous he sounds, with the full knowledge that he's a commodity regardless. While everyone scratches their head trying to make sense of Plaxico's comeback, maybe that's the only self-awareness that matters.

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