Life lessons can carry steep price
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There is a valuable lesson to be learned from Plaxico Burress' stupidity, Steelers star Hines Ward was saying yesterday at training camp. It's too late, of course, to help the fallen, disgraced Burress, who is looking at hard time in a federal prison, the end of his superstar NFL career and the loss of millions. But other athletes in all of the pro leagues? They need to pay attention to the Burress case, Ward said. There is an important message there.
"You are not invincible," Ward said. "Young guys, they have their money and they think they know it all. They think they're invincible. But no one is invincible."
There is a genuine sadness at the Steelers' Saint Vincent College training base -- at least among the older players -- that Burress has to be sacrificed for that message to hit home. Their popular former teammate was indicted this week on felony gun possession charges because he took a loaded, unregistered gun into a New York City nightclub in November and accidentally shot himself in the right thigh. If convicted, he could serve a minimum of 3 1/2 years. Even with a plea deal, he's expected to do at least two years, which, effectively, would end his playing career.
"It's bad," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who spent time with Burress last month at the home of Joey Porter -- another former Steeler -- in South Florida.
"He knew they were coming after him," Farrior said of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who are believed to be thrilled to have a high-profile case to use to put bite into their tough gun laws.
"He feels bad, and I feel bad for him," Farrior said. "If he could take it all back, he would."
Virtually to a man, the Steelers will tell you Burress was a good person and a great teammate when he played here from 2000-04. The public and the press saw a player who often did boneheaded things, among them a few minor skirmishes with the law and his infamous Mother's Day boycott of a mandatory minicamp. They also saw a black man with a lot of bling, driving fancy cars and wearing cornrows in his hair at a time when, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said yesterday, "Pittsburgh really wasn't ready for a hip-hop guy."
The coaches and players saw a different man when they looked at Burress.
"I couldn't say one negative thing about him," said Arians, who was Burress' position coach in 2004. "He was a quality kid. He never gave me anything but great effort on the field and in the classroom."
"He has a big heart," Farrior said.
"I was especially close to him," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "We used to eat Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at Joey's. He was always there for me when I needed anything."
"I remember him crying at our meeting after the ['04 AFC] championship game when he said goodbye because he knew it was his last meeting as a Steeler," Arians said. "He wasn't the only one crying because he was leaving."
The Steelers allowed Burress to go as a free agent because they knew they were going to have pay Ward big money the following year. It turned out to be a great decision for the franchise: Ward helped them win two Super Bowls in the past four seasons and was MVP of Super Bowl XL after the '05 season.
But the New York Giants also made a smart move signing Burress. He probably was their MVP in their '07 championship season, catching 11 passes for 151 yards on a frigid day in Green Bay against the Packers in the NFC championship game and catching the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl XLII victory that denied the New England Patriots a historic unbeaten season.
But Burress' boneheaded mistakes soon became more serious. He was fined $25,000 by the Giants after missing a mandatory minicamp in June 2008, suspended for the Oct. 5 game against Seattle that season and fined $117,500 after failing to attend a team meeting and not notifying the club of his absence, fined $45,000 by the NFL after abusing an official and tossing a football into the stands in San Francisco Oct. 19 and benched for the first quarter against the Steelers Oct. 26 after missing treatment for an injury the day before.
Then, there was the gun incident.
"Giant Idiot!" blared a New York tabloid back-page headline after the shooting.
Burress told the New York grand jury he took the weapon into the club for personal protection. He described himself as "truly remorseful."
The grand jury was not in a forgiving mood.
Now, after losing his $35 million contract with the Giants and looking at the end of his career, Burress is almost certainly headed to prison.
"I still can't believe it," Farrior said. "I feel like they should save the jail sentences for the real criminals. I don't feel like Plax is a threat to society. He's not out to harm anyone. He only did it to protect himself."
Ward wasn't quite so sympathetic.
"He made the choice to go into that club with a loaded gun in his pocket," he said. "If he felt like he needed protection, he probably shouldn't have gone in there in the first place."
Then, shaking his head, Ward said: "What a waste. Plax was so talented. He could have been right there with the elite guys."
That leads back to that valuable lesson Ward mentioned earlier.
"Life is about choices," he said. "I remember sitting Plax and Troy [Edwards, another former Steelers receiver] down and trying to tell them that. You make a bad choice, you have to live with the consequences."
Burress didn't listen.
Just like that, everything he worked for in his life is gone.
Is anyone out there paying attention?
First Published August 7, 2009 12:00 am