Dear NFL Draft Class,
If you’re looking for somebody to feed you a bunch of bullshit about how great you are now that you’ve been drafted, or to give you the “don’t spend all your money” speech like they’re sharing some kind of secret with you, you can just X out this window now and move on, because you won’t get that here. You can go out into the real world and learn for yourself the hard way. Be my guest.
But if you want the juice — if you want to know how it really is — I won’t cut corners. I’ll give it to you straight.
I know you see my name, and you probably think, That’s the guy who shot himself.
Don’t lie … it’s O.K.
I am that guy.
That’s one of the reasons you should listen to me. Because I’m living proof that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. You could have it all — you could be living the dream — and then one stupid decision can change everything.
Donna McWilliam/AP Images
But before I get to that, I wanna talk to you about trust.
I bet you got a lot of people making you feel really special right now. You made a lot of “friends” your last year in college and during the draft process, didn’t you? Cats from the old hood hit you up like you’re still boys. Cousins you didn’t even know you had came out of the woodwork talking about how they’re so proud. And everybody’s a financial advisor, an entrepreneur or whatever — or has a friend who is.
I won’t tell you who to trust. I can’t. Because the only person who can make that decision is you. The only advice I can really give you is to trust your gut, not your heart.
It won’t be easy. When dudes from the old hood come calling, you won’t want them to think you’re too good for them all of a sudden, right? So maybe you’ll be a little generous. And when your family reaches out, you won’t want to seem like you’re turning your back on them. So you’ll throw them a bone, because they’re family.
Your heart will tell you to take care of people. That’s good. That means you’re a good person. But before you take your checkbook out, ask yourself, Would this person be there for me if I was broke, or if I wasn’t in the NFL?
I know that’s not an easy question to answer, but that’s the best way I can put it. You’ll have some tough decisions to make. But even if you’re really careful, you still might have to get burned to learn.
Like I did.
In 2000, when the Steelers drafted me with the eighth pick and I became a millionaire overnight, I already knew what my first priority was going to be. I had some family members who had fallen on hard times. Some were about to get evicted from their house because they couldn’t make rent, so I helped them out. Others also needed money to pay bills — to keep the water on, keep the lights on, pay the mortgage.
So I took care of them, because they were family. And I was always taught that family was more important than anything.
I also had a group of guys — my best friends from the hood. They’d been there for me through everything. Real G’s. So after I got paid, I bought a big house, and they all moved in with me. There were like seven of us, and we each had our own rooms.
To most people, that sounds crazy — like I was just giving money away to my friends. But I did that for them because those were my guys. I would have done anything for them, the same way they would have done anything for me.
So I took care of my family, my closest friends, and myself.
And you probably think you can guess who was there for me and who disappeared when I basically lost everything.
Frank Franklin II/AP Images
You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to lose money in a bad investment or give money to somebody you shouldn’t. Almost everybody does. Which is why you need to take it upon yourself to learn about how money works and how business works.
Don’t expect somebody else to teach you.
When the Steelers drafted me, they basically handed $5.5 million to a kid who had never even had a bank account. I came from the hood. I didn’t know anything about money or how it worked. I thought that when I got to the NFL, somebody would teach me about money and about business.
But nobody did.
I went to the rookie symposium with all the other rookies, and people came in and talked to us about finances and how to act like a pro and all that. But they also had us put condoms on bananas — no lie, they brought out baskets of bananas and baskets of condoms, like it was an eighth-grade health class. It felt like they spent more time teaching us about STDs and how to conduct ourselves in public than about how to protect ourselves from scams, risky investments and other financial dangers.
After the symposium, I could put a condom on a banana, but I still didn’t know how to write a check.
I’m not blaming the NFL. At the end of the day, it was my life and it was my money, and I should have taken the necessary steps to educate myself to protect what I had earned — and so should you. Because you’re going to be a target. I’ve been sued more times than I’d like to count. Sometimes, people sued me because I owed them money — which was a result of me being a bad businessman and not managing my finances well.
But sometimes I felt like I was getting sued just because I had money.
Trust me … there will always be somebody trying to slide in and get a piece of what you got. Whether you like it or not — it comes with the territory.
Even though I had hit a few financial speed bumps along the way, all in all, life in the NFL was good. I was taking care of my friends and family, and I was also taking care of myself. In 2005, I left the Steelers for the Giants and signed a $25 million contract. I caught the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII.
I had it all — money, fame, a Super Bowl ring. I was ballin’, on the field and off. I was living the dream.
Then, in 2008, I took a gun into a New York City nightclub, and everything changed.
I had owned a gun since my rookie year, and I almost always had it on me. But that night, I left my house in New Jersey without my gun and met one of my teammates at an Applebee’s to get something to eat. After we ate, we were going to go pick up another teammate before going into the city.
But you know how when you leave your house, you have like a checklist? You check your pockets like, Phone, wallet, keys … O.K., I’m good. And if you leave your wallet or your phone at home, you feel kind of naked because you’re so used to having it on you. It’s a part of you.
That’s what it felt like that night when I didn’t have my gun. I usually had it on me. So that night, before we picked up my teammate and went into the city, I decided to go home and get my gun.
Looking back, I realize that carrying a gun gave me a false sense of security. I thought I was protecting myself when, as it turned out, I was doing the opposite.
When we got to the club, I got patted down at the door, and the security guard lifted my shirt up and saw my gun tucked into my belt. He was like, “O.K., if you’re gonna carry a gun, we gotta be with you the whole night.”
I said, “A’ight, cool.”
So they let me through the metal detector and into the club.
My friends and I stood at the bar for like five minutes, and the place was packed wall to wall. The security guy suggested we go upstairs, where we could get a table and chill and it wouldn’t be so crazy. So we did, and he led the way.
The stairway was narrow and dark and everything was black. I had a drink in my left hand and I was walking right behind the security guard. The music was loud and I could feel the bass thumping the stairs under my feet. But I could barely see and I guess I missed a step and my foot slipped. My gun came unhooked from my belt and went sliding down my right pant leg. My instant reaction was to catch it before it hit the floor, and I reached down with my right hand to grab it. And I guess my finger hit right on the trigger, because it went off.
The music was so loud that nobody actually heard the gun discharge, but I knew that it had because I saw the flash of fire through my jeans.
I didn’t even feel anything, so my first thought was, Oh shit, I hope I didn’t hit anybody. I looked around, and not only was nobody hit, they didn’t even know what had happened. So I thought everything was cool.
Then, my jeans started to feel wet, so I looked back down at my leg. I was wearing a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors, and the toe was completely red, covered in blood. The bullet had gone through the skin and some muscle on my right thigh. It came out without hitting any arteries or bone, but there was a lot of blood.
I turned back to one of my teammates and said, “We need to go to the hospital.”
“I just shot myself.”
He kind of blew me off like I was messin’ with him. Then he looked down at my leg and his eyes got real wide.
And we left.
Carrying a gun gave me a false sense of security. I thought I was protecting myself when, as it turned out, I was doing the opposite.
A couple of days later, when the news got out that I had shot myself, it was chaos. There were news vans lined up and down my street, helicopters circling my house — it was crazy. I eventually got arrested for criminal possession of a weapon, but I didn’t think anything was really going to happen to me. I figured I had permits and all that. Plus, I hadn’t hurt anybody but myself. I didn’t think there was anything to really punish me for.
But there were a few things I didn’t know that I should have.
My gun had been registered in Florida, where I had a house at the time, but the registration had expired. It wasn’t registered at all in New York. So my gun wasn’t as legal as I thought it was. Also, I didn’t know that there was a state law in New York that called for mandatory jail time for carrying a loaded handgun without a valid New York license.
But even with all that in mind, a little part of me still thought, I’m good. I’m Plaxico Burress. I’m an NFL player. A Super Bowl hero. It’s not like they’re not gonna throw me in jail, right?
Then, when I came out of my arraignment hearing, my attorney looked at me and said, “We got a problem … Mayor Bloomberg just went on TV and said you should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
And I swear I said, “Who’s Mayor Bloomberg?”
That’s how little I knew about everything that was going on.
Turns out he was a the mayor of New York City, and he had zero tolerance for guns. He didn’t care about touchdowns or Super Bowl rings. He didn’t care who I was. He wanted to bring the hammer down on me.
And after I plead guilty to gun possession charges in August 2009, I got sentenced to two years in prison.
Steven Hirsch/AP Images
I know you’re probably sitting back, thinking, Nah, something like that won’t happen to me.
That’s what I thought, too.
And it happened to me.
I went from being an NFL superstar to basically being put in a cage for 17 hours a day. I cried so many nights that I lost count. I thought about all the playground legends from my hood who were better athletes than me, but they stayed in the hood doing the same things they had always done, smoking the same things they had always smoked and getting caught up in that life.
But not me. I got out. I earned my way out. I had worked my whole life to get to where I was, and I threw it all away with one stupid decision. Now I was serving food in the prison cafeteria, mopping floors and cleaning toilets.
That puts things into perspective.
If you take one thing away from reading this, I think it should be that you’re not as special as you think you are. You’re not more important than anybody else just because you play in the NFL.
And I know how special you feel right now. When I was still in college at Michigan State and I was about to go pro, my phone rang one day and the guy on the other end said, “Yo, wassup, Plax?” — like he had known me forever — “I’m coming to Michigan to see you. I want you to sign with me.”
It was Master P.
He had started an agency — No Limit Sports — and he was repping pro athletes.
I was maybe 21 years old, so I was kind of wiggin’ out, like, Yo … this is Master P — the ice cream man — calling me up, basically saying, “Come ride wit’ me.”
I felt like I had made it before I had even made it. I felt special. I felt important.
And I felt that way every day until I got sent to prison.
Heather Ainsworth/AP Images
You know what the worst part about going to prison was? I served 22 months, and some of the same family members whose bills I had been paying for years never even came to visit me. It wasn’t until about 60 or 90 days before I got out that I started getting letters from them, asking if they could come to some games when I got back into the league.
I was like, No f***ing way. You ain’t coming to nothing.
And when I got out, I stopped paying their bills. I went my separate way. To this day, I haven’t even talked to them. It’s sad that some members of my family are no longer in my life. But I had to ask myself that difficult question:
Would they be there for me if I was broke, or if I wasn’t in the NFL?
And they had proven to me that they wouldn’t be.
I trusted my heart — I had taken care of them because they were family — and I got burned. I learned that there are always people out there looking to use you for your money or your fame.
It just hurt a lot because it was my own family.
My friends were there for me, though. The guys from the old hood who I had taken care of when I got paid came and visited me in prison. They’re still my boys to this day. They stuck with me through everything, even when there was nothing in it for them. Their love and support was unconditional. That’s real.
Like I said, I can’t tell you who to trust. I won’t tell you to trust your friends over your family. That’s just how it worked out for me. There is no perfect formula. It’s different for everybody.
Barry Gutierrez/AP Images
I always hear retired guys who have been through some shit in their lives say things like, “I wouldn’t change a thing because it made me who I am today.”
But would I change anything?
Hell yeah, I would.
I wouldn’t have shot myself in the damn leg. I wouldn’t have even gone home to get my gun that night. I would have known the laws on carrying a gun in NYC. I would have been smarter.
I can live with having lost some money because I trusted the wrong people, or because I wasn’t educated enough on how money and business worked. I learned some lessons the hard way, and that’s O.K. But at the end of the day, I lost two years of playing the game I love when I was in my prime. I lost millions of dollars. I lost valuable time with my wife and children. I even missed the birth of my daughter, who was born while I was in prison. I basically lost everything all because of one stupid decision.
And a lot of what I lost, I’ll never get back.
I can’t take back what I did. But my goal is to educate young players coming into the league so they don’t make the same mistakes. You’ll have a lot of people giving you advice, and it’s going to be tough to sort through the bullshit. So if you ever need somebody to talk to — somebody who’s gonna give it to you straight — hit me up on Twitter @plaxicoburress. I’m always down to help.
In the meantime, good luck. You’re in the NFL. And if you make the right decisions, you have a great life ahead of you. Just do your thing, be smart … and ball out, man. Because you’re living the dream.
Just don’t f*** it up.