- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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Plaxico Burress re-entered society when he was released from prison Monday after serving 21 months for illegal gun possession, but the template for rehabilitation and redemption of athletes of his profile has already been established -- by Michael Vick and, to a lesser extent, Ben Roethlisberger.
On the football field, Vick is a superstar anew, a one-man show who, in the course of a calendar year, made both Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb -- the quarterbacks who before Vick's arrival were the past, present and future of the Philadelphia Eagles -- expendable. For the Eagles, Vick was electric (ask the New York Giants or Washington Redskins), and for his peers he was inspiring, turning a one-year contract that at the time might have seemed charitable even for a third-string quarterback into a showcase for his immense ability.
Off the field -- regardless of the questions of fairness and forgiveness and flaws in the justice system -- Vick provided a rare example of how the rehabilitative portion of "the system" is supposed to work. For his crimes, he was the equivalent of kryptonite in the eyes of many fans and even some of his the National Football League employers, yet he was still given an opportunity. He worked hard with no guarantees. He was humbled and accepted his social penance, speaking at schools, to children and to adults about the consequences of what he'd been and done. Whatever inner thoughts he harbored about his situation, he accepted the criticism and the reality that some might never forgive him -- which is their right -- and to date, he's done nothing new to embarrass himself or his community. He has, as they say, paid much, if not all, of his debt to society.
Roethlisberger was never convicted -- or criminally charged, for that matter -- but his encounters with women did significant damage to both his public image and professional prospects, and at least one of the women filed a civil lawsuit. In response to the crises, Roethlisberger took his team to the Super Bowl for the third time, and announced that he was engaged to be married. And then he offered a piece of news germane only to his particular circumstances: He and his fiancée won't be living together before marriage.
In both cases, the narrative of their second chances ended with positive outcomes. Neither Vick nor Roethlisberger was permanently undone by his transgressions, and quite possibly -- if their recent public images are authentic -- they both seem to have emerged as better, more responsible people. Both responded to the threats to their careers with focus and professionalism, at least publicly. Perhaps just as importantly, both were at a critical point in their NFL lives: The league could have deemed them too toxic to be worthy of redemption.
Burress, however, is not Vick; nor is he Roethlisberger, both of whom were saved at least in part by the talent trap: Their ability to perform feats on a football field that very few people in the world can match gives them value to their industry. They are quarterbacks, the most glamorous position in the sport, possibly in all of professional sports. As much as Burress was a star -- four 1,000-yard seasons, the winning touchdown catch for the Giants to undo the Patriots' undefeated 2007 regular season -- the question for NFL teams will be whether a wide receiver such as Burress has enough ability to justify the kind of risk the league took with Vick and Roethlisberger.
If it had been clear that Vick, following his release from federal prison after 23 months, could no longer play football at a high level, would any team have given him the chance to rehabilitate his life? The question seems too cynical in tone, but the two concepts, which should be unrelated, might nevertheless be linked. During a time of public fatigue with the flamboyant excesses of professional sports figures, Burress appeared so gilded, so cavalier and so unaccountable that he could hold a glass of red wine while he carried a loaded handgun stuck in his pants. Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got involved in wanting Burress behind bars. He was bad for the brand.
Two years later, it's possible that the football world has moved on in a way that makes Burress just another name, and generally unimportant to the success of the league. If that's the case, he will become another symbol of just how fungible and disposable -- and temporary -- the glamorous life truly is. To have a second opportunity to reclaim a life with which he was so careless the first time around, Burress might first have to prove he can still play.
Vick and Roethlisberger were both public relations disasters. Burress was criminally reckless, carrying a loaded .40-caliber Glock pistol into a crowded nightclub in the elastic of his waistband and accidentally shooting himself in the leg in the process. Due to New York's mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines of 3½ years for a conviction, Burress pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.
Vick, according to authorities, bankrolled an entire criminal operation that led to the grisly killing of animals. Roethlisberger appeared to be engaged in a pattern of offensive behavior -- especially to the female demographic that, statistics suggest, buys a large portion of merchandise. Both cases frightened a corporate machine like the NFL. Burress, however, served just two months fewer than Vick, and he clearly does not require the same level of image-cleansing Vick needed on re-entry.
So the question is whether Burress, who will be 34 in August, has the skills now in the eyes of football talent evaluators to save himself the way the other two did. The upside of Vick's post-prison talent was tremendous, allowing him time to heal. Even in loyal Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger said he wasn't sure whether the Steelers would keep him or whether the fans would want him -- doubts that are now long gone as he comes off a Super Bowl appearance.
Burress doesn't appear to have that kind of football upside. He'll likely need to find someone (Andy Reid, perhaps?) who will take a personal interest in him and allow him time to re-develop, a rarity in an often impersonal game.
Even the case of Donte Stallworth is less murky than that of Burress. Stallworth was sentenced to 30 days for DUI manslaughter after killing a pedestrian in a Miami traffic accident two years ago. Stallworth was out of the game during 2009 and resurfaced with the Baltimore Ravens for an injury-plagued, mixed-results season last year. He was never the elite receiver Burress was, and is now a role player; nonetheless, his case requires nuance. Investigators appeared to have concluded that the Stallworth incident -- though he was behind the wheel and over the legal alcohol limit -- was more an unfortunate accident (the victim, Mario Reyes, apparently was not in a crosswalk when Stallworth's vehicle hit him) than a heinous or reckless criminal act. That sets Stallworth's post-sentence football re-entry apart from that of both Vick and Burress.
Still, Burress likely will not be a pariah. He will have job opportunities if there is professional football to be played this year. Vick has already offered support for him. If Burress has any skills remaining in his 6-foot-5 frame, he too will benefit from the talent trap.
The next step, naturally, is for Burress to go home to his family, to see the daughter who was born while he was behind bars, to rebuild and repair the lives of the people around him. Meanwhile, his professional reconstruction likely depends less on whether teams want him to have another chance at life, and more on whether they believe he can do for them what he did for the Giants.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger both survived image-crushing incidents and are thriving again in the NFL. But a new life in football is going to be difficult for Plaxico Burress, who will be released from prison Monday.