Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was among the last players to leave the locker room Sunday in New England. As he zipped his travel bag closed, a wise guy couldn't help himself and asked a very loaded question: "Hey, Hines, do you have a gun in there?"
OK, so it wasn't very funny.
Not on this NFL weekend.
Not after New York Giants Super Bowl hero Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the right thigh Friday night with an unlicensed gun that he carried into a Manhattan nightclub.
There's nothing funny about a man's stupidity.
"Giant Idiot!" read one New York tabloid back-page headline, describing Burress.
"If you feel like you need to take a gun into a club to feel safe," Ward said of his former Steelers teammate, "maybe you ought not to be going to that club in the first place."
Burress turned himself into New York police yesterday and is facing two gun possession charges. That he was carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and shot himself isn't as shocking as the revelation that came out in the aftermath: Many, if not a majority of NFL players, own and even carry guns.
"I don't need a gun," Ward said, "but I know a lot of guys who use protection. I see both sides of having one."
Players will tell you they can't be careful enough after Washington Redskins Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor was shot and killed in his home during a robbery a year ago. That's understandable. While with the Steelers in early 2005, Burress' Washington's Landing townhouse was robbed by three men. Every man has a right to protect himself, his family and his home.
But to carry a loaded weapon into a club?
"That's what I don't understand," Ward said. "Anything can happen when you do that. You can kill another human being. I don't know of many people who can live with that."
No one is suggesting that players live like prisoners in their homes and avoid the public at all times. Young men like to go to clubs to relax. But they have to be a lot smarter about it than Burress was. High-profile athletes are easy targets because of their wealth and fame. They have a lot to lose; in Burress' case, the Giants could go after some of his signing bonus and perhaps terminate the five-year, $35 million contract he signed before the season.
But a loaded gun in a public place is never the answer.
Why not a bodyguard?
Burress certainly could afford one.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told ESPN The Magazine this fall that he never goes out in public alone since someone put a gun in his face earlier in his career. "Having a bodyguard doesn't make you weak," he said. "The issue is protecting yourself and what you have: Your name, health, money. You're trying to save your life. ... Depending on the setting, you get guys who just get really gutsy when they get a couple of drinks in them."
That makes a lot of sense, but no one has ever accused Burress of thinking clearly. He has shown very little respect to himself, his family, his career, his team and the NFL. Shame on him for being such a lousy teammate.
It wasn't always that way with Burress. During his Steelers days, he did some dumb things -- his premature spike in Jacksonville, his minor skirmishes with the law, his Mother's Day boycott of minicamp, his dropped pass for a would-be touchdown in the AFC championship game after the '04 season and his moaning immediately afterward about Roethlisberger not throwing him the ball enough -- but his teammates and coach Bill Cowher were fond of him. The Steelers didn't let him leave as a free agent because they thought he was a problem. They let him go to the Giants because they couldn't afford to give big-money deals to both him and Ward.
The Steelers are pretty happy they went with Ward, by the way.
For a long time, the Giants and coach Tom Coughlin seemed thrilled to have Burress. They especially loved him after he caught the winning touchdown pass to beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. But Burress has been a mess -- not to mention a Giant headache -- since that game. He was fined $25,000 by the team for missing a mandatory minicamp in June and missed most of training camp with an ankle injury that, remarkably, improved after he signed his new contract. He was suspended for a game Oct. 5 against Seattle and fined $117,500 after failing to appear at a team meeting and not notifying club officials about his absence. He was fined $45,000 by the NFL for abusing an official and tossing a football into the stands during a game Oct. 19 against San Francisco. And he was benched by Coughlin for the first quarter of the game Oct. 26 against the Steelers after failing to get treatment for an injury the day before.
Now, this gun incident.
"Last Shot?" read another New York tabloid headline, speculating that Burress is finished with the Giants, maybe even in the NFL.
Burress could get up to seven years in prison if convicted of the gun charge, although no one believes he would get that much time.
If Burress is finished as an NFL player, he has only himself to blame.
Giant Idiot, indeed.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .