ROME, N.Y. — Clad nearly all in black — hooded sweat shirt, athletic shorts, sneakers — and a white T-shirt, the tall, lanky man walked alone through a gate in a chain-link fence topped by swirls of barbed wire.
Plaxico Burress looked around for something familiar, and his agent Drew Rosenhaus ran up and jumped into his arms as both men smiled broadly.
Freedom at last for Burress, the former New York Giants receiver. He was released from prison around 9 a.m. today after spending nearly two years behind bars on a gun charge.
“I just want to thank God for bringing me through one of the most trying times in my life,” Burress said in a brief exchange with reporters outside Oneida Correctional Facility in central New York. “It’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful day to be reunited with my family. I want to go home and spend some quality time with them.
“I’d like to thank everybody for their prayers and words of encouragement,” Burress said as the fog-shrouded morning gave way to brilliant sunshine. “I’d like to thank all my fans all around the world for the thousands of letters, for their unwavering support. As far as football is concerned, if and when everything gets settled, when they get back on the field, I’ll be ready.”
Burress pleaded guilty in August 2009 to attempted criminal possession of a weapon and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released about three months early for good behavior.
Burress will be on parole for two years. He has to get and keep a job, undergo substance abuse testing, obey any curfew established by his Florida parole officer, support his family and undergo any anger counseling or other conditions required by his parole officer.
It didn’t take long for friends and former teammates to transmit their good wishes.
In response to a tweet that said: ’”Just In!. Plaxico Burress Just Released from Jail!” former Giants star Michael Strahan responded: “About time!!”
Despite the intensity of the NBA finals, even LeBron James took a moment to tweet: “Welcome home Plaxico! Best of luck in the near future both on and off the field. 17 Jersey coming to a city near u.”
Former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce, who was with Burress the night his life unraveled, tweeted the following a couple of hours before Burress was released: “17.. Time well over due.. Great teammate, friend, person and better yet Man. Always a Champ.. Only 1 way to go … Back to the TOP.”
Burress, who turns 34 in August, seemed intent on doing just that. He gave the victory sign as he sped away in a black Range Rover to meet up with his wife for the flight home.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who served a 23-month federal sentence for running a dogfighting ring, has shown it’s possible to successfully return to the NFL. Vick said in a recent radio interview with WIP in Philadelphia that Burress would be a great fit with the Eagles. Maybe that’s why Burress also was wearing a Philadelphia Phillies hat when he was freed.
The Giants declined comment today.
Rosenhaus said the wide receiver would fly home to Florida immediately to begin workouts. Rosenhaus said he has spoken to several teams about Burress and expects him to play again in the NFL. He said Burress matured in prison and there are things he would do differently.
“He’s learned an awful lot,” Rosenhaus said outside the prison moments before his client emerged. “He knows that he obviously made a mistake. To miss two NFL seasons in the prime of your career. To not be with your family, most importantly. To lose out on millions and millions of dollars. These are things that have forced him to certainly evaluate his life.”
Rosenhaus said the teams he’s talked to have not expressed any concerns about Burress. He did not say which teams or how many he spoke to.
“He’s going to be a top free agent,” Rosenhaus said. “There are going to be multiple teams interested in signing him. I expect him to get a good contract. I expect him to absolutely be playing.”
Because he was a high-profile inmate, Burress was placed in a protective custody unit at the prison, which has 930 inmates, 20 in protective custody. While in prison, he completed an aggression management program and worked as a lawn and grounds laborer, according the state’s Department of Correctional Services.
Burress violated prison rules and regulations three times. He lied to a guard about having permission to use the phone; gave another inmate a pair of black and silver sneakers that were deemed contraband; and had too many cassette tapes and an unauthorized extra pillow in his “filthy” cell.
The 6-foot-5 receiver had the world at his feet after catching a 13-yard pass from Eli Manning with 35 seconds to play to give the Giants a stunning 17-14 win over the undefeated New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl.
His world fell apart nine months later when he walked into a Manhattan nightclub with a handgun tucked in the waistband of his pants. The weapon slipped down and discharged as Burress tried to grab it, injuring him in the thigh.
The wound was not serious. The backlash was.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for Burress to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and was irate that officials at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center treated Burress and failed to report the shooting, as required by law. A doctor who treated Burress was later suspended.
The gun was not licensed in New York or in New Jersey, where Burress lived. His license to carry a concealed weapon in Florida had expired in May 2008.