The man who used to wear No. 17 for the New York Giants and caught the most famous touchdown pass in team history passes through a massive steel door, and now he is walking toward you. He has green prison-issue pants and a blue-shirted corrections officer with him step for step, as if the guy were a defensive back. The irony isn’t lost on No. 17, who used to run free in secondaries, a 6-5, 230-pound handful, and now can’t shake free of anybody.
Once inside the visitor’s room of Oneida Correctional Facility, the officer heads to the guard station. Plaxico Burress sits down at a little square table. He looks straight ahead at the three brown gates, razor-wired walkway and two metal doors that separate Oneida’s 955 inmates from the outside world, and starts talking about his son Elijah. Elijah is 3 years old and a big Giants fan. He watches most every game, with a helmet on his head, a ball under his arm, and, of course, a No. 17 Burress jersey on his back. He cheers for Brandon Jacobs, his father’s best friend on the team, and for all the guys. Mostly, though, Elijah keeps asking his father why he isn’t home and why he doesn’t play for the Giants anymore.
“What do I tell him? How am I supposed to answer those questions?” Burress asks at the outset of a 90-minute interview, his first with a print reporter since he went away. He touches the soul patch on his chin and looks down for a moment.
“You can’t go any lower than being here, other than being in the ground,” Burress says. “It’s about as tough as it gets, on a personal level. You learn a lot about yourself. You try to think about the bigger picture, about life outside these walls. You just try to find a way to get through.” It’s Week 2 in the NFL and the Giants are in Indianapolis and another football season is firing up without Plaxico Burress. He expects no sympathy for that, nor for his current living situation in the outskirts of this small, struggling upstate city, where his number is 09R3260 and he works as a porter and mops linoleum floors, and spends up to 16 hours a day in a 12 x 12 cell in Building 19, Dorm V. His room has a sink, a toilet and a locker, and a steady influx of books; he reads The Bible faithfully, and about two books a week, his recent favorite being Dick Gregory’s autobiography, Callus On My Soul.