Many NFL players shudder when they think about what Plaxico Burress is going through — and what still awaits.
Players across the league think about how difficult his life has become. They think about how much worse it could have been. And they think about how — in a culture where athletes and guns seem to go together far too often — it easily could have been them.
“It’s eye-opening, there’s no doubt about it,” Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking said.
Burress carried a loaded handgun into a Manhattan night club and it accidentally fired. The bullet hit him in the right thigh, causing injuries that doctors said would keep him out four to six weeks.
The New York Giants suspended Burress for the rest of the season, but his problems could grow. He has been charged with illegal weapons possession, a felony that requires a mandatory minimum 3½ years and a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.
In the aftermath of the shooting, The Associated Press sent reporters into NFL locker rooms to ask players about guns. None condoned what Burress did. Most of them, however, could see why a player might want to carry a loaded handgun in public.
“We get paid a good amount of money for the sport, but we’re still kids,” said Titans safety Chris Hope, who does not own a gun. “Most of us are 25, 26 years old and in the prime of our lives. We can’t enjoy the spoils God has blessed us with by going out and having a good time or going and traveling, buying nice clothes or jewelry, because you have to worry about looking over your shoulder.”
The NFL lifestyle is filled with big-time money and fame — and all the problems that go along with that. Personal safety is something many players think about every time they step outside their house.
Or sometimes while they’re still in the house.
The death of Redskins safety Sean Taylor, shot in the leg at his house by an armed intruder, brought the subject of the NFL-player-as-target to the forefront. The first anniversary of Taylor’s murder was Thanksgiving Day.
“Especially after that incident, I think us ... high-profile players being able to carry weapons and being able to protect yourself, it’s a 50-50,” said Bengals receiver Chad Ocho Cinco, who owns guns but doesn’t take them in public. “Because when you carry it, it weighs heavy if you get in trouble or you have to use it or it’s used against you. And then you can’t go anywhere because you attract. It’s hard.”
Estimates on how many players owned at least one gun ranged from around 20 percent (by Vonnie Holliday of the Dolphins) to 90 percent (by Leonard Davis of the Cowboys), with the majority saying the number was somewhere around half.
Several players interviewed said they were hunters or knew hunters on their teams who owned shotguns. But handguns are clearly the biggest concern.
Hardly anyone would take a guess at how many carried handguns in public, although a few said they figured that some of them probably carried them more for show than protection.
“If they do, it’s dumb,” Chiefs cornerback Patrick Surtain said. “But if you’re carrying it for protection, you have a right to.”
Almost all of those interviewed agreed that NFL players are in a much different place than the average citizen and have every reason to own a gun. On the subject of the wisdom of owning a gun, the responses diverged wildly.
“Nine times out of 10, I’m going to get in trouble, even protecting my life,” said Jaguars wide receiver Dennis Northcutt. “That’s why I stopped carrying. I don’t want any more problems. You jack me, most likely you’re going to get my stuff.”
Elsewhere in the locker room, an entirely different opinion emerged.
“Why is it so bad for a person to have a gun in his or her sole possession to protect themselves?” asked Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
One problem cited by Jones-Drew and others was that player salaries are often made public.
“They look at you a certain way because of the money we make and the status that we have,” Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens said. “But, I mean, for myself, that’s why I either have some security personnel that rolls with me or I don’t go. Or I travel with a group of guys.”
Bringing a security detail along makes players feel safe without having to carry a gun, and some said that was their choice.
Still others acknowledged a reality preached to them by coaches, team security specialists, the union and the league: If it’s the kind of place where you need a gun or a bodyguard, you probably don’t want to be there.
“I don’t carry a gun,” said Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, whose personal wealth dwarfs that of any of his players. “I don’t think I need a gun. I don’t think the players need guns and if they need guns, they’re going to places they shouldn’t be.”
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