“We had a 30 yard strip where I ran shuttles to get in shape, ran till I couldn’t run no more. I’d be out in minus 14, running sprints in the snow and lifting weights, with ice on the bar. Guys’d be at their windows yelling (bleep) the Giants! You need to sign with the Jets when you get out!”

Full circle.

In the fall of 1998, Keyshawn Johnson had New York City eating out of the palms of his hands.  The same giant, malleable appendages that the former USC Trojan used to haul in the pigskin 83 “damn” times that season.  Ten of those times were past the pylon, en route to the first Pro Bowl appearance of the then 25-year-old Johnson’s career.

Plaxico Burress' regular season debut with the Jets Sunday night has been 11 years in the making. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

In the Jets’ divisional round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Giant Stadium, those same steady hands snatched up nine receptions and an interception while filling in as an extra defensive back on the game’s final play, to seal the playoff victory for New York.

The New York Jets’ franchise had never seen an exceptional talent the likes of Keyshawn at the wideout position — a 6-foot-4, athletic specimen with the length and speed of a gazelle.  Johnson and the Jets would never soar to those immense heights again.

By the spring of 2000, following the departure of Parcells from the sideline to the front office as well as two frustrating seasons that terminated before the postseason, the enigmatic Johnson had punched his ticket out of the Big Apple.

April 12, 2000: The New York Jets send Keyshawn Johnson packing to Tampa Bay, three days prior the draft.  In exchange for the controversial high-priced receiver, Jets general manager Bill Parcells nets two first round picks from the Buccaneers.

In a draft pool abundant with talent, Jets brass has already eyed a potential replacement for the receiver formally known as “Me-Shawn”.  The 6-foot-5 Michigan State Spartan , Plaxico Burress.  Great size, exceptional speed. This seemed like a match made in football heaven.  Who better to replace Keyshawn Johnson than his clone? With an attitude problem and knack for driving his coaching staff nuts, to boot.

Except that fateful alliance of green and white never happened the night of April 15.  Before the Jets found themselves on the clock at pick number 12, Burress had already been gobbled up by the Pittsburgh Steelers at eight.  Parcells and Jets’ brass, unable to successfully package their multiple first round picks to move up for the Spartan receiver, were left to use their four first-round picks on two talented defensive linemen (John Abraham and Shaun Ellis), a future replacement for Vinny Testaverde (Chad Pennington) and a tight end (Anthony Becht).  The Jets would be forced to look elsewhere to fill the gaping hole at the receiver position.

For the past ten years the New York Jets have tried desperately to replace that leviathan void left by the departure of  Johnson in 2000.  From Laveranues Coles to Curtis Conway. From Santana Moss to Matthew Hatchette.  From Justin McCareins to Braylon Edwards, they’ve searched high and wide to recreate the magic of that one special January afternoon against the Jags in ’98.  And failed miserably.

Except maybe for that one day during the spring of 2009.  That one fateful morning when Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made the four-hour, 230-mile trip from the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, New Jersey up I-87 North to Utica, New York.  Their final destination would be Oneida Correctional Facility.  Here, both men would visit inmate number 09-R-3260, Plaxico Antonio Burress, offering their words of support and encouragement to the 32-year-old through the thick prison glass.

“They were really the first to support me with everything I was going through at that time,” said Burress back in July.  “I was able to sit down with them and talk to them. It really meant a lot to me and my family, especially, with all the events that we had going on at that time (and) not really knowing the fate of my situation or what was going to transpire. Just for them to be there at that time, it just really said a lot about them and I was really humbled by it.”

On draft day, the Jets were one of 31 NFL teams competing for the services of the 22-year-old Spartan receiver.  Now, nine long years later they were the only ones in the room.  That spring day  in ’09, they were the only ones pulling for future of the fallen receiver.

Full circle.

Fast forward to late July, less than two months after Burress’s release from prison, the 34-year-old receiver was finally a free man.  And a free agent.  With multiple teams gunning for his services, including his former team the New York Giants, Tannenbaum and Johnson called on Burress once again.  In many ways, the Jets needed Burress as much as he needed them.  With Braylon Edwards half-way out of town, Tannenbaum was running out of options at the wide receiver position,with the frantic free agent market drying up by the second.  On the early summer morning of August 1, Burress answered their call, agreeing to a one-year contract worth $3 million.

“It just felt right for me to be able to come here,” says Burress.  “With everything that I had going on a couple years ago, to have those guys support me the way that they did. Like I said, I just felt like I made the right decision…I just looked at all of the pieces to the puzzle that were already in place. A great owner, Woody has been doing a great job of running this organization since I can remember and with Mr. Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan, putting myself into this equation with what they have intact. Being able to play beside Santonio Holmes and play with (LaDainian Tomlinson) and Mark Sanchez, I just feel that it’s a great opportunity for me. I just want to come here to help these guys win.”

The right player at the right time for the right team.  The right team for the right player.  That’s the way Burress had seen it since that spring day at Oneida Correctional Facility.

$3 million is a modest price for the type of playmaker at the receiver position that an organization and fanbase have spent just over a decade starving for.  More importantly, the artist more commonly known around the Meadowlands as “Plax” is a difference maker in the red zone, an area of anemic offensive deficiency for Brian Schottenheimer’s offensive unit for the past two seasons.  In 2010, the Jets converted roughly forty-four percent of their scoring opportunities within the 20-yard line.

In his third season in the league, Mark Sanchez will finally be able to develop chemistry with his most dangerous receiver in Week 1.  And as Keyshawn used to say, Sanchez will make sure that Burress “gets the damn ball”.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Burress is the formidable weapon  Sanchez has never had at his disposal thus far in his young career.  A bullying-power forward of a receiver lined up on the outside, capable of leaving corners in the dust with his speed as well as being able to effectively post them up in the back of the end z0ne.  Don’t believe the hype?  Ask the Philadelphia Eagles.  Or Bill Belichick, who still is kept-up at night by the image of Burress blowing past Ellis Hobbs on a post route and hauling in the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII.

Or the Dallas Cowboys.

Tonight won’t mark the first time the number 17 has ran out of the tunnel at the Meadowlands to a raucous, sell-out crowd.  Won’t even be his first time doing it in the green and white jersey.  But it will represent something else, something far bigger than just the start of another season, with yet another name on the front of the jersey for Plaxico Burress.  Diligence.  Hard work.  Patience.

80,000 fans chanting his name, rocking his jersey, with millions of eyes from around the country glued to their HD screens.  To him. Inmate number 09-R-3260

The hot 16 hour days and cold nights in that 12- by 12-foot jail cell. The endless hours he spent mopping prison floors and serving food to inmates.  The extra wind sprints.  That four times a week he lifted weights, when no one was watching and no team was checking for him.  The routes he ran for no reason, catching passes from fellow convicts.

That November night at Latin Quarter in Midtown seems so far away now.  After 10 years of waiting, the Jets finally got their man.  After over 40 years of waiting, they might get their ring too.

Full circle.
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