The structure of pro sports requires finding the best athletes. While this assumption doesn’t always hold up — consider the decades of black quarterbacks who never got to shine — it’s generally how things go. For most, this means a shorter career, with some post-sports opportunities. It isn’t always that simple, though. These athletes suddenly face wealth and national attention; it can be a recipe for disaster.
Plaxico Burress, the incredible wide receiver forever etched into the New York Giants’ history books, is a key example. He was great but could’ve been far greater. It all came down to what could be the dumbest play in NFL history (as long as off-field actions count).
The remarkable rise of Plaxico Burress
Burress spent his initial years rapidly developing as one of the top WRs with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as Pro Football Reference notes. After an expected decent but not remarkable rookie year, he turned heads with his second-year turnaround. He caught 66 passes, racked up 1,008 receiving yards and totaled six touchdowns. Immediately, he was breathing rarefied air in the deeply competitive NFL.
Burress’ greatest moment came with his second team, the Giants. It started with one of the greatest Super Bowl passes of all time. A harried Eli Manning managed to break free of an all-but-assured sack situation. Manning rush to release the ball, hitting his target David Tyree slightly too high. Tyree, under pressure himself, leaped to grab the ball and braced it against his helmet.
That set up Burress to have his moment. The 32-yard gain put him in position. He shouldered the pressure of paying out on that remarkable catch, which could only burn itself into the memories of football fans if it led to an upset. He pulled it off, leading to a shocking 17-14 Giants win against an otherwise undefeated Patriots.
The dumbest play in NFL history (off the field)
Bleacher Report ranked the 25 dumbest players in NFL history and put Burress right at No. 1. His choices set off a cascade of awful events that nearly buried his career for good and certainly took him out of any all-time discussions. He could’ve been so much more, but he decided to take an illegal gun to a club.
CBS Sports reports that the Giants’ had a 10-1 record on the day Burress walked into that club, November 28, 2008. His concealed and unlicensed pistol went off and injured his leg. While it was not life-threatening, the legal issues that followed were certainly career-threatening. The Giants were quickly eliminated in the playoffs without the sure-handed Burress.
He spent 20 months in prison, unable to stay in top NFL-ready shape. The Giants released him, leaving other teams to take a risk on his post-prison status. In 2011, the New York Jets gave him a shot, and found a perfectly standard, if not great, receiver. By 2012, he was only used in four games and that spelled the end of his rapidly declining career.
How Burress learned from his mistake
This is a story about a stupid, preventable mistake that collapsed the career of an incredible player. It’s also a story that hasn’t quite ended yet, and all signs point to the story of Burress ultimately being a positive one. Since spending time in prison, he’s clawed his way back to relevance.
Burress managed to repair his reputation while proving a useful asset to football off the field. The now-43-year-old worked as a coaching intern in 2017 with the Arizona Cardinals. There, he developed a reputation for mentoring players that he continues today, including the troubled Antonio Brown.
Burress makes regular appearances on FS1, well-regarded for its sober analysis of up-and-coming players. Could a future in broadcasting be coming his way? It’s likely we’re not close to seeing the end of Plaxico Burress.