Not every integral player gets to part with their team on their own terms. And not every team gets to retain its integral players through the length of their career. Money is a key factor in both equations, to be sure.
As I talked about earlier today, we can probably safely assume that the relationship Troy Polamalu has with the Pittsburgh Steelers still has a period of healing to go through before there can be peace in that sphere, if there ever will be.
But not all partings are permanent, and Plaxico Burress, the Steelers’ first-round draft pick at wide receiver in the 2000 draft, is just one example of that. He was a big-time player and instrumental in helping a rookie Ben Roethlisberger get off on the right foot in 2004 before he hit unrestricted free agency.
Burress cashed in during free agency with the Giants, and while he might have missed a Super Bowl title with the Steelers just that same year in 2005, he would go on to win with New York two years after that. Things got a bit ugly after that, including a stint in jail for gun charges after shooting himself in a nightclub, but the road was not at its end.
After his release from prison, he replanted himself with the Jets, and in 2012, got the opportunity to work with Roethlisberger and the Steelers again. In four games at the end of the 2012 season, he caught three passes for 42 yards and a touchdown in a limited role. He was brought back the next year but suffered an injury, and did not play again.
On the opportunity to come back to where his career began, he recently told the team’s website for a Legends Series interview that he “embraced it more”, saying, “when I left, I went on to do good things, but I didn’t have that special factor”.
“You get back with the guys that you missed and you realize how special an environment it is. It’s something that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The older I got in the business and I saw what went on in the locker room, that locker room made the team and the guys in there made it”.
Of course, I don’t believe there were too many of his former teammates left at that time. But there were some, like Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, and several defensive players.
“Pittsburgh will always be home to me”, he said. “I spent more time there than anywhere and the relationships I formed verified that”. He said that the city “rubs off” on the players who come there, and they embrace the blue-collar ethos that remains even as Pittsburgh has transformed into a hub of white-collar industry.
Crediting the fans for their loyalty and dedication, Burress said that “they live, eat and breathe football here. You think it’s normal because it’s all you know. It’s not like that everywhere. When you go somewhere else, the fans are not the same. The fans here are the best”.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has fond memories of watching him play in Pittsburgh, and even liked seeing him get a second stint here, albeit a short one. I think his time away from here—and in prison—led him to appreciate just how important the team and the city had been to him, which is why he remains involved today.