Resisting authority ultimately doomed Burress

There are two stories that may help explain how in a little more than 18 months, Plaxico Burress(notes) went from catching the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII to facing two years in prison for shooting himself.

Ultimately, pride and resisting authority got the former New York Giants wide receiver, who pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in New York on Thursday and agreed to a two-year prison sentence that could be reduced to 20 months.

Photo Burress making the game-winning grab vs. the Pats.
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

That pride came from Burress’ long-dead mother Vicki, a powerful woman who worked two jobs and got her nursing degree while raising three boys on her own.

When Burress was a kid growing up in Virginia Beach, Va., he and his brothers were walking out of their apartment building one day when other people from the neighborhood started greeting them. Burress’ brother Carlos, born prematurely and always a bit scrawny, earned the nickname “Ethie” – an unflattering mocking reference to how he resembled a starving Ethiopian child. As the other people said, “Hey Mrs. Burress,” “Hey Plax,” and then “Hey Ethie,” momma Burress exploded.

“Boy, your name ain’t no [expletive] Ethie. Tell them your [expletive] name,” she yelled. Or at least that’s how Burress told the story as he recounted it for his book “Giant”. Burress repeated the quote, laughing affectionately at his mother’s hubris.

At some point, the pride morphed into a resistance against rules.

Burress attended Fork Union Military Academy for one semester after high school to get his grades up before attending Michigan State. One of the rules at Fork Union, as in the regular military, is that superior officers must be saluted. In the then-17-year-old Burress’ case, his superiors included a lot of boys who were 12 or 13 years old and had been at the school before his enrollment.

Burress refused to salute, reasoning that “if we were outside [the school], I’d be kicking your” butt. He refused even though his punishment every day was to do “tours” where he had to walk up and down a hill at the back of the school for sometimes hours on end.

In short, Burress was taught as a child to stand up strongly for what you think. Unfortunately, he often stood up against rules that weren’t going to change no matter how much he tilted against them, and even if it meant wasting time and effort. He continued the same behavior in the NFL, getting fined time after time by the Giants as he butted heads with disciplinarian head coach Tom Coughlin.

Burress even joked that he must have set a record for being fined. One report last year estimated that he’d been fined between 40 and 50 times for everything from being late to meetings to not wearing his practice uniform properly.

In March at the NFL owners meetings, shortly before the Giants cut Burress, Coughlin was still shaking his head about his wide receiver, a player he appreciated in many ways but couldn’t handle in the most important ones.

“He doesn’t mean to do anybody any harm,” Coughlin said. “But you still have to operate in a team structure.”

Fast forward to Thursday morning, when Burress finally did what he should have done months ago: settled the case the state of New York had against him over the incident in November in which Burress shot himself at a Manhattan nightclub. Burress, possessing a gun that had not been registered in New York or his home of New Jersey, exposed himself to a New York law that called for 3½ years in prison.

While society can argue about the validity of a law where a man who accidentally shoots himself does as much time as a guy who ran and participated in a dogfighting ring and far more time than a man who killed another man while drunk driving, the bottom line is that Burress created his own reality on this one.

Rather than working out a deal earlier with the Manhattan district attorney, Burress spent months thumbing his nose at the prosecutors even though this was an open-and-shut case. Friends like Jerome Bettis, Antonio Pierce(notes) and Brandon Jacobs(notes) told Burress for months that he needed to settle the case rather than continue to fight.

“It’s disappointing that it has come to this,” Bettis said Thursday. “It shouldn’t have gone this far. It’s almost like it got to be a witchhunt after him because he was fighting it so much.”

Sadly, fighting authority to the point of being illogical is the way that Burress, who turned 32 on Aug. 12, learned to do things long ago. Perhaps two years in custody will teach him the folly of that, even if it’s an inordinate amount of time considering the crime.

By the time Burress gets out, however, he’ll need all the fight he has left if he hopes to have a career.

Jason Cole co-authored “Giant” with Burress

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Aug 20, 2009