The law provides that any person charged with a crime is presumed by law to be innocent and that presumption continues unless and until the State proves a Defendant to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Ok, I said it, and this applies to Aaron Hernandez, former tight end for the New England Patriots and presently facing at least one count of first degree murder and identified as a “person of interest” in at least one other significant criminal investigation. If convicted, Hernandez will be among a group of notorious professional athletes whose accomplishments on the field were tarnished by what happened off the field.
So here is Part One of my Five Part Series, which I am calling my “All Time State Penn (Penitentiary) Team.” Any one of the ten named to the list will be in jeopardy of being replaced in the next 12 months by Aaron Hernandez, so let’s give them their due before that happens.
Counting down from number ten, here are numbers ten and nine, as well as the first of five who qualify for dishonorable mention:
#10 PLAXICO BURRESS-
Stardom was on the horizon for Plaxico Burress when, in his first season at Michigan State, he set the single season reception record. In just two seasons as a Spartan, he was among all time leaders in career touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards.
Burress then entered the NFL Draft, where he was selected with the eight overall pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2000 Draft. Until 2001, the Steelers had never had two receivers surpass 1,000 total receiving yards in the same season. But when Burress combined with Hines Ward, the two accomplished the feat in 2001 and then again in 2002.
After five successful seasons with the Steelers, Burress committed the sacrilegious act of abandoning The Steel City and signing with the New York Giants. He had formidable seasons with the Giants in 2005 (over 1,200 receiving yards), 2006 (10 receiving touchdowns) and 2007 (surpassing again the 1,000 yard mark for total receiving yards). He hit the pinnacle in Super Bowl XLII against the Patriots on February 8, 2008, played here at the University of Phoenix Stadium. After David Tyree’s one-handed “helmet catch,” Burress caught a 13 yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning to win the game with only 35 seconds remaining, lifting the Giants to a 17-14 victory. Before the game and akin to Joe Namath’s bold “Jets victory” guarantee against the Colts before Super Bowl III, Burress predicted that the Giants would win 23-17.
Then, the wheels started coming off. Burress did not participate in spring mini-camps in May of 2008, disenchanted with the contract he signed in 2005. Burress went on to sign a contract extension but it was heavily laden with performance bonuses rather than guaranteed money. This became one in a long line of mistakes.
At the start of the 2008 season, Burress missed practice in September and was later suspended and fined by the team. He hit a momentary high point on November 2nd of that season when he caught his 500th career reception against the Cowboys. The following week, he played here in Arizona against the Cardinals and caught a pass on the first play of the game. He left the game due to a reported hamstring injury and, ironically, that was the last he was seen in a Giant uniform following another thigh-related injury that soon followed.
There is a saying that people that create problems for themselves are known to have “shot themself in the foot” but for Burress, this was far more literal than figurative. On November 28, 2008, Burress suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right thigh at New York City nightclub and he was soon after charged with criminal possession of a firearm. Despite recovering from his physical wounds, the damage to his career stuck. In August of 2009, Burress pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison, which began in September of that year. Following his sentencing, his defense attorney Benjamin Brafman summed it all up when he said: “This has been a very emotional experience for him. He’s sad about what he’s done to his life, his career, and more importantly to his family. He’s a fundamentally good man who has used bad judgment and is going to pay a very, very severe penalty.”
Following his release from prison, Burress had an unimpressive stint with the New York Jets and, in November of 2012, signed to return to the Steelers following injuries to Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery. As of today, he is still part of the Steelers’ roster.
#9 MARION JONES
Marion Jones was among the greatest ever female track stars. But her fall from grace may have been foreshadowed far back when she was competing in high school. In 1992, she “missed” a drug test and was facing suspension. However, she won her suspension hearing while being represented by California attorney Johnnie Cochran, known best but not exclusively for his successful representation of O.J. Simpson for murder charges.
During her illustrious high school career, she won four straight California Interscholastic Federation annual championships in the 100 meter sprint. She then went to play basketball for the University of North Carolina but after her freshman year, she focused only on track. An injury kept her from competing for the United States during the 1996 Summer Olympics but she was ready to go for the Sydney Summer Olympics of 2000.
Jones made bold predictions leading up to the 2000 Summer Games, proclaiming that would take home five gold medals. Despite not hitting her mark, she shined by winning gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4 X 400 relay as well as two other medals in the 4 X 100 relay and long jump. By many, she was considered to be one of the greatest female athletes of all time and she was a national hero following the Games.
For quite some time, however, Jones’ track success was accompanied by rumors of steroid use. Those rumors grew louder when her then husband, shot putter C.J. Hunter, withdrew from the Sydney Olympics because of an alleged “knee injury” which soon after was overshadowed by reports that he had failed as many as four steroid tests leading up to the Summer Games. Since Jones was married to Hunter and he coached her, the rumors and taint on her accomplishments spread.
In 2004, Jones wrote an autobiography, titled “Marion Jones: Life In The Fast Lane.” She stated therein that “I have always been unequivocal in my opinion; I am against performance enhancing drugs. I have never taken them and never will take them.” Well, I guess she was misquoted (in her own autobiography), because of what followed.
In 2007, Jones admitted to lying to federal agents during the infamous BALCO investigation and admitted that she had used steroids before the 2000 Summer Olympic Games. She also admitted to knowledge about an unrelated check fraud case. She was later sentenced in US District Court for her perjury and was sentenced to six months in jail, which she served from March through September of 2008. Jones was then stripped of all of her Olympic Medals as well three other world championship titles from 2001.
Interestingly, Jones has a connection to Arizona. She was drafted as a guard by the Phoenix Mercury with the 33rd overall pick of the 2003 WNBA Draft. While she never played for the Mercury, she did have a brief and unremarkable WNBA career with the Tulsa Shock from 2010-2011.
There are some who would not make an all-time great list because they achieved so little in the world of sports (despite having talent). Nonetheless, they are certainly worthy of dishonorable mention for not only committing the crime of never living up to their athletic potential, but also for their actual criminal activities.
Starting with number five in the countdown, here is the Dishonorable Mention list:
#5 ISAIAH (“J.R.”) RIDER
Rider shined during his two seasons at UNLV, where he garnered 2nd Team All-American honors following the 1992-93 NCAA season, averaging 29.1 points per game. He had mad skills but character was always an issue. He was suspended from the 1993 NIT Tournament following academic and cheating allegations.
At the start of his NBA career with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rider won the Slam Dunk Contest after a dunk he called “The East Bay Funk Dunk.” All signs pointed to stardom and he had three productive seasons with Minnesota, averaging about 19 points, followed by decent but not overwhelming performances for the Trail Blazers and Atlanta Hawks. He was marginal at best in his one season with the Lakers during the 2000-2001 championship season and was cut the very next season by the Denver Nuggets after only ten games.
Rider never came close to hitting his basketball potential but he did hit the drugs, eventually convicted for possession of cocaine, battery and evading law enforcement. He served seven months in jail.
NEXT WEEK: Numbers 7 and 8 on the All-Time State Penn Team along with one more member of the Dishonorable Mention Team.