Plaxico Burress thanked fans for their support and declared it a "beautiful day" Monday as he left prison after serving 20 months for illegally carrying and firing a gun at a Manhattan nightclub.
Burress now faces another grim reality -- a lockout that could jeopardize the resumption of his football career. Outside prison, Burress said: "As far as football is concerned, if and when everything gets settled and when they get back on the field, I'll be ready."
As he left the Oneida Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Burress wore a Phillies hat; one of the teams rumored to be considering him is the Philadelphia Eagles.
The former New York Giants receiver, who caught the game-winning pass in the 2008 Super Bowl, plans to return to his Florida home to spend time with his wife, son and a daughter born while he was in jail.
"It's a beautiful day to get to be reunited with my family -- go home and spend some quality time with them," he said.
Unlike Michael Vick, released in 2009 from a federal term for dogfighting, Burress doesn't have a league waiting to bid on his services.
But "he will play in the NFL this year," Drew Rosenhaus, Burress' agent, said in an email to The Associated Press. "Many teams want him. He will be a top free agent. He is healthy and ready to go. He will be signed shortly after the lockout ends."
Burress' release caps a more than three-year saga that saw yet another athlete put behind bars, separated from family and friends and losing the riches and lifestyle most only dream about.
"You go from being the absolute hero to finding yourself in jail for a mistake in judgment," Peter M. Frankel, Burress' attorney, told the AP in an interview. "It's really a tragic story."
Burress was at the pinnacle of his career when everything went south.
The lanky 6-foot-5 receiver seemingly had a career-defining moment when he caught a 13-yard pass from Eli Manning with 35 seconds to play to give the Giants a stunning 17-14 win over the undefeated New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl.
Nine months later his world unraveled. Burress, with a handgun tucked in his sweatpants, hit a a New York City nightclub with then-Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce. Burress' weapon slipped from his waistband and discharged as he attempted to grab it, injuring him in the thigh. The bullet narrowly missed a security guard, prosecutors said.
Burress' wound was not serious. The fallout was disastrous.
Mayor Bloomberg called for him to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and was irate that officials at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center treated Burress and failed to report the shooting, as required by law. A doctor who treated Burress was later suspended.
Burress was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2009 after pleading guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon. The gun was not licensed in New York or in New Jersey, where Burress lived. His license to carry a concealed weapon in Florida had expired in May 2008.
His attorney has said he carried the gun because he feared for his safety after the slayings of NFL players Sean Taylor and Darrent Williams the year before.
Said Frankel: "I don't think that he will ever believe that the punishment fit the crime," but prison has given Burress "a new appreciation" for his family and good fortune.
Mateen Cleaves, a former NBA player and a friend of Burress from their days at Michigan State, said he visited the player in prison earlier this year.
"It was hard to see him in that situation, but he made it easier on me because he was upbeat and in good spirits" Cleaves said. "Some people can turn a negative into a positive, and he's one of those people."
Some believe Burress has taken the lesson of his experience seriously, including the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a prominent advocacy group that pressed for him to go to prison but supported his unsuccessful bid to get work release last year.
Burress will face no further disciplinary action by the NFL. His league suspension was concurrent with his jail term.
Former Giants teammate Osi Umenyiora said the lockout may work in Burress' favor because he will have time to train and get ready for the season.
"He will be great when he comes out and play very well like he always has, I'm sure," said Umenyiora, who said he visited Burress in prison. "I know many teams will give him a chance because he has rare talent and ability. Overall I'm sad for what he went through, but glad that that time period is over."