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Books | Sports

December 17, 2008

Writing Plaxico Burress's Autobiography

In the Super Bowl afterglow, Jason Cole turned the Giants receiver's spoken words into a book. Now his co-writer is facing a gun charge and three and a half years in prison.

Max Lakin

Lately, Plaxico Burress—embattled celebrity wide receiver of the New York Giants football club with a name just built for a toothpaste jingle—is famous for all the wrong reasons, particularly his recent turn as a walking PSA for child-safety locks on guns. It's ironic that once-sure-handed Burress—who logged more than 1,000 yards and 70 receptions last season and reeled in that Super Bowl-ring-clinching touchdown—couldn't handle a gun without shooting himself in his own shanks.

The co-authors.
"Burress is scared. He's not an idiot."—Jason Cole

The co-authors.

Utterly beguiled by Plaxico's spectacular descent into athletic leprosy, Gelf turned to Jason Cole, co-author of the receiver's recent manifesto, Giant: The Road to the Super Bowl.

The book foreshadows Burress's recent gun trouble. In Giant, Burress describes attending Sean Taylor's funeral and coming to a realization about his own situation, saying that "something like that can happen so fast and you could be gone. We're football players and people look at us with jealousy." He verges into some acute paranoia, telling Cole he "can't relax for a minute." Among other things, "who wants to live like that? Who wants to live in fear? Who wants to constantly, 24/7, be worrying about how I didn't lock my door or I didn't turn my alarm on? Who is walking behind me? Or I can't go here. I don't want to live like that…I want to live as close to a normal life as I can. I have several guns and I had them before Sean got killed—a long time before that." Perhaps most ironically, speaking about his guns, Burress tells Cole that he "can get to them with all the lights out, blindfolded. I can go get them in all situations…I have two guns that I can take apart myself and put back together. I know them backward and forward. I have to."

We had hoped that in our email conversation, Cole, a Yahoo Sports football writer and Miami-based journalist, would let us into the sordid details of Burress's life—maybe even a previously unpublished sorry tale of crack dens and loose women that the two shared one late afternoon over a few bottles of San Giacomo—but what we got was an earnest portrait of a decent guy who lauded his mother and carries his family above his shoulders.

Cole will be the first to tell you about Burress's incorrigibility, his healthy disregard for authority, his uncaged swagger, and his sometimes-frenetic sense of self. But Cole will also defend the star receiver as evenly and as coolly as his journalistic temperament would warrant. Gelf talked to Cole about the celebrity-athletic complex that seems to dog so many of our lauded heroes, the prominence of guns in the league, and how the New York Giant found himself in his giant-sized mess. (The following interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Gelf Magazine: Plenty of celebrity athletes churn out memoirs. Few of them go to print without heavy assistance from underwriters. (Jose Canseco probably does it himself. It shows.) So we ask you, how much of this is Plax putting quill to parchment, and how much of it is you channeling the murky depths of this man's existence?

Jason Cole: The book was done completely through interviews. Obviously, the interviews are cleaned up from the spoken word, but it's pretty true to his voice. Burress was generous with his time, but he didn't do any of the writing. He did read through it, thoroughly, and made some changes…mostly minor, nothing of great substance. He seemed very happy with the book.

Gelf Magazine: What was it like to get in his head? I'd expect it to look like some kind of Escher drawing.

Jason Cole: Burress was pretty open about his life, so it didn't require such complex interpretation. His life is pretty typical of a lot of athletes. The exception is that he has some deep and very disparate emotions about his mother and father. He loves his late mother dearly and holds her in high esteem. He has almost zero relationship with his father. While I think that creates some complicated emotions for him to deal with, he was open to discussing a lot of that and how it affects him to this day. I think Burress is a person trying to get to a better life, but I don't think he has a lot of the skills required to get there. They take time to acquire.

Gelf Magazine: This obviously isn't Burress's first blush at isolating himself from others. He's clashed with Giants coach Tom Coughlin, most notably, and has just done a generally good job at being a pariah out in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Did you pick up those social cues from writing with him?

Jason Cole: Burress rebels against authoritarian behavior from people who merely try to force him to do what they want. Nick Saban (at Michigan State) and Tom Coughlin are among those he has clashed with the most. Likewise, he has problems with the way people perceive he should behave (typically, fans don't understand free will and expect the guys who play for their teams to simply stay in lockstep with what's supposed to happen). But I think the most telling story about his behavior is when he spent a semester at Fork Union Military Academy after high school in order to get his grades up to qualify for Michigan State.
The rules at Fork Union are that you have to salute superior officers. Burress was roughly 18 at the time and most of the superior officers were younger (12 to 14, typically). He refused to salute, always willing to accept punishment (walking up and down hills every day).
As for his relationship with me, we were fine. I learned to accept that he was going to be late and wouldn't be prompt in calling back. But that's pretty normal for most athlete-personalities.

Gelf Magazine: Have you spoken with him recently concerning his gun charge?

Jason Cole: I haven't spoken with him since training camp. He hasn't returned my calls or messages, which is typical of how he has dealt with all the media.

Gelf Magazine: The Giants sans Plax are 1-1. Do you think his presence on the field will be missed in the remainder of the season?

Jason Cole: Yes, particularly if running back Brandon Jacobs is unable to play. The short answer as to why is that Burress and Jacobs are the only skill-position players the Giants have who can force the other team's defense to change what it normally wants to do. Given that, the Giants are much easier to defend.
[Editor's note: After this interview, the Giants were promptly routed by America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys.]

The good old days.

Gelf Magazine: And what about in the locker room? Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said, "as far as the locker room is concerned, [the Burress situation] is already a dead issue." And that was on the 4th. Do you buy that, or is Plax's newly-burnished persona non grata status in the clubhouse an executive order?

Jason Cole: It all depends on if they win or lose. If they win, it won't be an issue. The players will claim, "Oh, we overcame that." If they lose, the players will grapple for reasons, and the Burress "distraction" will get a lot of weight. It's the funny way in sports where the results help define the issues.

Gelf Magazine: Traditionally—and lately with guys like Chad "Ocho Cinco-Please Take Away My Money" Johnson; professional stuntman and franchise-destroyer Terrell Owens; and expertly drawn caricature Pacman Jones—the NFL seems to breed this kind of distraction. We could veer into the NBA's default scarecrow Stephon Marbury; or MLB's resident pariah, Alex Rodriguez, a walking billboard for the merits of limited self-awareness; but the Internet only has so much room. What is it with athletes who get a little bit of that fame?

Jason Cole: I don't know Marbury very well, but each of the guys you mention is interesting in that none of them has a strong father figure in his life. They've all had to kind of figure it out on their own. Some have had disturbing moments along the way, such as Owens finding out that his father lived across the street from him when he was about 12 or 13 after he unknowingly showed interest in his half-sister—deeply weird.
They have all taken different paths. Johnson should have been a Broadway dancer with his "look at me" approach to life. He loves the spotlight and the big stage, but he's otherwise pretty benign. Owens has a constant need to be loved and appreciated, although it has become tempered now that he's in the winter of his career. Jones is dangerous, a wannabe thug who gets off on controlling and hurting other people. Rodriguez is a narcissist who constantly worries about how he is perceived, which is why he can't seem to handle high-pressure situations. He's very uncomfortable in his own skin.
Burress's problem, as mentioned before, is that he doesn't deal with authority figures. He wants to be great at what he does, but he wants to do it on his schedule. Furthermore, I think his first reaction tends to be emotional, rather than intellectual. He usually gets to the right answer, but it takes more time than most people think it should.

"I think his first reaction tends to be emotional, rather than intellectual. He usually gets to the right answer, but it takes more time than most people think it should."
Gelf Magazine: The fact that he was walking around with an unlicensed gun is probably indefensible, but for the sake of argument, let's say it was legit. Is he still an idiot for coming to a midtown club strapped, or is there a kind of precedent in cases like Darrent Williams, Richard Collier, and Sean Taylor?

Jason Cole: [Burress's] license in Florida had lapsed in May 2008, so it's not as if he hadn't taken the time to do the paperwork in the past. He also talked about having guns in his book, so he wasn't trying to hide that fact. Now, my view on guns is that they're useless, unless you're well-trained in how to disarm someone else and then get yourself in position to use one. I don't own a gun and never will. However, it's pretty hard for me to say that athletes today shouldn't be afraid for their lives. In addition to Taylor, Williams, and Collier, Burress is teammates with Jerome McDougle, who was shot in the stomach in 2005 while still a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. That's four NFL players shot in less than four years. My take on that is that Burress is scared. He's not an idiot. Now, should the club have had him check the gun? Yes. Is it the club's fault he shot himself? No. Bottom line, there's a lot of blame to go around in this one, and it starts with Burress.

Gelf Magazine: Fellow G-Man Steve Smith was reportedly robbed at gunpoint just days before the misfire. Any reason to believe that put Plax on edge, and could that hold up as a defense for him carrying a gun, if not a defense for his failure to throw on a pair of actual pants?

Jason Cole: Burress doesn't need a defense as to why he was carrying a gun. That's his right as a citizen, even if a great number of us (myself included) disagree with his decision. I think logic would tell you the incident with Smith stirred Burress's fear, but I don't know that for sure. As for the pants deal, don't let sarcasm get in the way of a good point. I'm not here to defend him. More importantly, I don't know what was going through his mind and don't care to guess.

Gelf Magazine: At the very least, the issue has resurrected interest in the NFL's noted gun culture. You don't see this kind of paranoia in other major sports, or even Hollywood, and these guys are arguably larger and stronger per capita than anyone else who might need protection. What do you think is the root of all that?

Jason Cole: I think you're drastically underestimating basketball and baseball in terms of the gun culture. Do a search on guys like Stephen Jackson in the NBA or Jamaal Tinsley. In baseball, try Ugueth Urbina. Furthermore, there are no stats to prove it one way or another, so I would hate to draw any conclusion about one sport over another. I would say that gun use is more environmental than anything. It's what you grow up with. If you're from the inner city or some other impoverished area, you probably encountered handguns and shootings. If you're from a country town, you probably encountered hunting rifles and perhaps went hunting yourself.

"I dislike guns and appreciate tough gun laws. But Burress is facing three and a half years for this? Are you serious?"
Gelf Magazine: The tabloids have been presaging Burress's expulsion, and Mayor Bloomberg looks like he wants to pass a Plaxico Burress Bill of Zero Tolerance, and not in the Megan's Law kind of way. What do the Giants do with Plax from here? Sell the rights to his name and likeness to the American Plastics Council? Give him an extended suspension and a little time to finish that novel? Or maybe just shuffle him off to some gulag franchise like Oakland or Detroit?

Jason Cole: What's truly sad about this whole thing is that if Burress didn't have this long history of piddly issues (fines for being late, missing injury-rehab sessions, not participating in mini-camp, etc.), he probably could have survived this ordeal and played for the Giants again. Here's a guy who only 10 months ago was being celebrated as a hero and now that's all going to go to waste. But he's the kind of player—laconic, sour, aloof—who puts fans off in terms of public perception.
My opinion on this whole incident is that he deserves some level of punishment akin to a bad DUI situation: 30, 60, 90 days in jail, a heavy fine, suspension or outright revocation of his right to carry a gun. That seems appropriate. But the public outrage over this and lack of perspective seems really weird to me. This was an accident and he shot himself. If he had shot somebody else, that would be a different crime. But he didn't. He did something stupid and it seems that a law that's designed for reckless criminals is being applied to him. Again, I dislike guns and appreciate tough gun laws. But Burress is facing three and a half years for this? Are you serious? It's not like he was even waving the gun around threatening people. He didn't even overtly scare anybody.

Gelf Magazine: So will this prove the end of Plaxico Burress?

Jason Cole: Will the NFL suspend him? Maybe. He doesn't have any other history of violent crime or even drug use. Just a lot of silly, stupid fines for behaving childishly at times. The really weird part is that he'll probably end up doing more time than a guy like Pacman Jones, whose actions have led to some people being seriously hurt.
Buress will play again in the NFL, assuming he doesn't go in jail for the mandatory minimum of three and a half years. He'll play because he's just too talented and there aren't that many people who can do what he can do. That's real life.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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- Sports
- posted on Dec 20, 08

this is a great read

- Sports
- posted on Aug 16, 09

Good article.

Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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