FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick will both be on the field in Philadelphia on Sunday as free men, linked more by the interruptions of their Pro Bowl careers than what earned them fame in the first place. Vick is in his third season since being released from prison. Burress, a Jets wide receiver, is only 6 months removed from prison and in his first year back in the NFL. And Burress isn't sure if his comeback would have been welcomed if not for what Vick first did in Philadelphia.
"I would say if it wasn't for Mike going through what he went through, maybe I wouldn't have had a second chance," Burress said yesterday. "A lot of people were saying he wouldn't be able to play or perform at the level he played when he went away, and he's proven everybody wrong. For me to sit there and watch the things he was doing, it gave me that hope and motivation just to keep working hard and that there's a chance I could get back to playing at an elite level."
Both lost two seasons in the primes of their careers. Vick, 31, was arrested for his involvement in a dogfighting ring and sentenced in 2007. Burress, 34, was arrested for criminal possession of a weapon and reckless endangerment after accidentally shooting himself while in a Manhattan nightclub in November 2008. While Burress sat in prison, he drew inspiration from Vick's second act. He made sure to remain in shape, knowing what Vick did could be duplicated.
"I have the [utmost] respect for him as a player and as a person and I'm proud of him for how he has gotten his career back on track," Vick said yesterday through an Eagles spokesman. "I supported and encouraged him as best I could."
Vick's influence on Burress stretched beyond football. When Burress was first released, Vick said Burress should think "family first and football second." Burress said Vick maintained regular contact with Burress' family, both over the phone and in person.
"He went through hell," Burress said. "Him picking up the phone and calling my wife and checking up on her, seeing how she was doing emotionally. And Mike would spend time with my brother when I was away. Those are things you can't put a price tag on. That's just him."
The bond that connects Vick and Burress stretches beyond stardom and imprisonment and redemption. It's more than tarnished images and vows of reclamation. It actually started when both were teenagers in Virginia's Tidewater region. Their hometowns were separated by the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, which connects Hampton and Newport News (Vick territory) with Norfolk and Virginia Beach (Burress territory).
The first time Burress saw Vick on a football field was during a high school scrimmage when Burress was a sophomore and Vick was a freshman. Burress played free safety. When Vick entered the game, he threw a deep post over Burress' head.
"Who in the hell is that little dude?" Burress asked the cornerback.
"And all these years later, he's Michael Vick," Burress said yesterday. "He was so fast. His style was uncanny. He was such a rare breed."
The two maintained a relationship through college, when Vick attended Virginia Tech and Burress played at Michigan State. The relationship has since strengthened, and Burress said the two speak on the phone each week and exchange text messages more frequently.
Vick backed up Donovan McNabb in 2009 after 2 years away, spending time reacclimating himself to football and reworking his body into football shape. He reclaimed a starting job last season, became the NFL's comeback player of the year and earned a $100 million contract extension.
Burress, who was released by the Giants amid his legal issues in 2009, has 37 catches, 512 yards and seven touchdowns in his first 13 games back from jail, although he didn't have the adjustment period that Vick was afforded. Jets coach Rex Ryan shot down the idea that Vick's success after 2 years away factored into the Jets' taking a chance on Burress - "Not one bit," Ryan said - and the Jets only signed Burress to a 1-year deal worth around $3 million, clearly expecting results this season.
There was a time when it appeared Burress could join Vick in Philadelphia. The first image America saw of Burress after he left Oneida Correctional Facility as a free man at 9 a.m. June 6 included a burgundy retro Phillies cap on his head. His former Giants teammate and close friend Brandon Jacobs predicted Burress would find his way down the Jersey Turnpike. Even Vick provided an endorsement this week: "I'd love the chance to play with him one day."
Burress said he and Vick have long discussed playing together and described it as something that "would be a dream come true."
"Maybe it won't [happen], maybe it will. You can't predict the future," Burress said. "But it's something we've always talked about. Everybody would be so excited, two guys from Tidewater, quarterback and receiver who've been what we've been through. It would have been something special."
On Sunday, they'll settle for being on the same field. Burress said he has received 20 to 30 calls from friends and family back home who want to drive up I-95 for the game. Considering where both once were and where both now are, there's an esoteric link that makes Sunday's game all the more meaningful.