Steelers WR Burress shows it's possible to come home again
In this 2003 file photo, former Steeler Plaxico Burress celebrates after the team beat Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
Share with others:
When former cornerback Rod Woodson became a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe was asked about the possibility of Woodson re-signing with the team that drafted him on the first round in 1987.
"We're not the Salvation Army," Donahoe said. "We don't have an open door."
The Steelers did not re-sign Woodson. Instead, he played four more seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, two more with the Oakland Raiders and played in two more Super Bowls. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 73 interceptions, third all-time.
But that closed-door policy, unofficial or otherwise, has not remained in effect over the years.
The Steelers have brought back as many as eight players they drafted for a second career with the team, even if it is for a much shorter of period of time than their first stint.
Plaxico Burress, the eighth overall pick in the 2000 draft who played five seasons with the team, is the latest. He was signed on Monday, got a crash course in the playbook and will play at 1 p.m. today when the Steelers (6-4) meet the Cleveland Browns (2-8) in Cleveland.
Burress comes with a disclaimer. He has not played a football game since the end of the 2011 season, when he was with the New York Jets. And nobody should expect him to be the player they remember who caught 261 passes for 4,164 yards and 22 touchdowns from 2000-04 with the Steelers.
Even though the player knows the expectation level will be there.
"You're a little nervous, not like a rookie, but you definitely want to show them you still got it, you can still play," said inside linebacker Larry Foote, who is in his second career with the Steelers. "You want to win over the crowd again."
No person in professional sports has left his team and returned more than former baseball manager Billy Martin, who was fired and rehired by the New York Yankees five times from 1975 to 1988.
But there are others.
In baseball, all-time hit king Pete Rose returned to the Cincinnati Reds as a player/manager, home-run slugger Dick Allen came back to the Philadelphia Phillies, and Joe Torre returned to manage all three teams for whom he played as a first baseman/catcher -- Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets.
In basketball, Steve Nash returned to the Phoenix Suns after six years in Dallas and won a couple of league MVP awards.
In football, there is no greater example than former quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who returned to the team that drafted him and achieved greater success.
He played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1961-66, was traded to the New York Giants in 1967, then traded back to the Vikings in 1972 and led them to three Super Bowls, all of which the Vikings lost. One of those defeats was a 16-6 loss to the Steelers in Super Bowl IX.
Then there are players such as former Washington Redskins running back John Riggins and Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones who had two stints with their teams but for different reasons.
They are examples of players who made comebacks and had second careers with the same team.
Riggins was drafted in the first round by the New York Jets in 1971 and signed in free agency with the Redskins in 1978. But Riggins sat out the 1980 season in a contract dispute and said he was retiring. One year later, he returned to the Redskins, saying "I'm bored, I'm broke and I'm back." He led the Redskins to a Super Bowl XVII victory against the Miami Dolphins and won the game's MVP award.
Jones was the Cowboys' No. 1 draft choice in 1974, but after five seasons, he decided to retire at age 28 to pursue a career in boxing. One year later, Jones returned and had an even better career in Dallas, being named All-Pro from 1981-83.
In hockey, there was no greater return for a second stint with a team than Mario Lemieux's return to the Penguins in 2000. Kevin Stevens was another, returning to the team he helped to two Stanley Cup victories in 2001.
In basketball, Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls after the 1993 season to play minor-league baseball. He returned to the Bulls in 1996 and helped them to three more NBA titles.
At 35, nobody is expecting Burress to have that kind of impact on the Steelers.
"It feels good, it feels good to me with Hamp and Larry," Burress said, referring to nose tackle Casey Hampton and Foote, two of the players who remain from his last stint with the Steelers. "It feels good to be here. It's a comfort level.
"Getting the opportunity to finish what you started, how many guys get this opportunity?"
The Steelers signed Burress to a pro-rated one-year, $920,000 contract because of injuries to leading receiver Antonio Brown, who will miss his third game in a row because of a high-ankle sprain, and Jerricho Cotchery, who sustained multiple rib fractures against the Ravens and will miss at least two games.
After watching most of Wednesday's practice and trying to absorb as much as he can, Burress worked as an extra receiver on Thursday and Friday to get ready for the Browns. But what is reasonable to expect from Burress, who hasn't been on a football field since January?
"He's a big body who's made big catches, a big target," Hampton said. "You always had to have a guy over top of him, and he's a threat in the red zone."
That was the old Burress who teamed with Hines Ward to give the Steelers one of the best receiver tandems in the league in the early 2000s. Can he be that player again? What is left in his professional tank?
Last year, after serving an 18-month prison sentence for gun possession, he had 45 catches for 612 yards and eight touchdowns with the New York Jets. His size made him a valuable option in the red zone. But he didn't have a catch longer than 30 yards and yards-after-catch average was only 3.5
"I'm an old man, I got a wife and family, my life is in a total different direction," Burress said. "I'm happy to be out here playing football. My wife is excited, my son's excited. All those things people say, it doesn't bother me, based on some of the things I went through and persevered through.
"I know I can still play. I'm going to go out and enjoy it and have some fun. It's easy to get in here and talk to some of these guys and have fun."
Burress' return to the team is nothing new.
Over the years, the Steelers have brought back a number of players they originally drafted for a second stint with the team -- Foote, linebackers Dennis Winston and Chad Browns, tackle Ray Pinney, cornerbacks Willie Williams and Bryant McFadden, and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.
And that doesn't include defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was on Bill Cowher's original staff from 1992-96, left to return to the Cincinnati Bengals, only to rejoin the Steelers for a second career in 2004.
"It's definitely nice, especially if you're looking for a job," Foote said. "It's better coming somewhere where you're familiar with everything and people you know, better than somewhere late in season that's just a place you know nothing about."
Unless, of course, there is no open-door policy.
First Published November 25, 2012 12:00 am