LATROBE — Plaxico Burress turns 36 on Monday, an age the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver jokes makes him “grandpa” in a locker room filled with kids who weren’t even playing Pop Warner when Burress made his NFL debut nine months after the turn of the millennium.
Look closely enough at Burress’ still impossibly youthful face and you’ll see a fleck or two of gray in his chin stubble. It’s only when Burress talks that the years — and the perspective they provide — become evident.
In the twilight of a career that remains enigmatic at best and erratic at worst, this is Burress’ last stand. And he knows it. Even more, he’s OK with it.
“I tell some of the younger guys, these rookies coming in, I wouldn’t want to be in those shoes for nothing in the world,” Burress said Wednesday. “With what I’ve learned in this business and going through it and knowing what it’s about and having the dreams and aspirations we all come in with as young players, I’ve been fortunate enough to live them all out.”
One very public nightmare too.
Burress lost two years of his prime while spending 20 months in prison on a gun charge from 2009-11, an incident that will forever shade a résumé that includes the game-winning touchdown for the New York Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl.
A different person emerged from prison than the one that went in. After he was stripped of his freedom, Burress has spent two seasons embracing the role of elder statesman, first with the New York Jets and now with the team that chose him with the eighth overall selection in the 2000 NFL Draft. His presence in the meeting room — where Jerricho Cotchery is the only other receiver born within a decade of Burress — is a calming presence for budding star Antonio Brown and a group of 20-somethings that include Emmanuel Sanders and third-round pick Markus Wheaton.
“I just try to help these guys understand,” Burress said. “The game, everything, it just moves faster here.”
Just not, Burress believes, too fast for him to be effective. Signed to provide needed depth last November, Burress struggled to get onto the field. He managed just three receptions in three games, spending another three weeks on the inactive list.
Bumped to second string for the first time in his career, Burress understands the window to earn a roster spot is small. Brown and Sanders are the entrenched starters. Wheaton is expected to provide some of the burst lost when Mike Wallace left for Miami in free agency. Cotchery is the third-down guy.
That leaves little wiggle room for Burress, even though he insists he’s not counting reps or trying to figure out if he is being targeted as much as everybody else.
Maybe he’s lost a step. Then again, Burress points out he’s not sure having “a step” was ever part of his game.
“I’ve never ran a 4.3, a 4.4 (40-yard dash) and I never will,” he said. “But I’m going to find a way to get open and catch the football.”
It’s something Burress showed an ability to do in the briefest of flashes last fall. His first reception with the Steelers since he left the team after the 2004 season came in Week 13 against San Diego. Faced with a third-and-long in Pittsburgh territory, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fired an 18-yard strike to Burress, who stretched out his 6-foot-4 frame to pull the ball in.
He did it again in an otherwise meaningless finale against Cleveland, hauling in a 12-yard touchdown that provided the final score in an 8-8 season.
Having a full offseason to get acclimated to coordinator Todd Haley’s offense brought Burress to training camp at Saint Vincent College energized. Facing off regularly against the starting secondary, Burress makes up for in wiliness what he lacks in quickness.
Asked if Burress can still be effective as he inches into his late-30s, the usually motormouthed cornerback Ike Taylor gets serious.
“Plax still got it,” Taylor said. “Age, I think it pretty much comes down to, different people have different bodies. I tend to kind of throw age out the window for certain people.”
Receivers coach Richard Mann credits Burress for not resting on his talent alone, praising Burress for adjusting his game to remain competitive against defensive backs and safeties who are younger and considerably stronger than the player whose arms appear as slender as they did during his first go-round in Pittsburgh.
“When you get those veteran guys like Plax, when you get to a spot where you can still get open because of your technique, that’s when you get to play in this league a good long time,” Mann said.
Even if Burress knows that window is closing rapidly. He’s trying to enjoy the ride and pass down a little wisdom so the lessons he learned can be carried forward whether he’s on the sideline or not.
“Everything that I’ve seen in this business, on the field, off the field, my adversities and those things,” Burress said “I’m trying to find a way to tie it all in with the younger guys and help ’em along the way.”
NOTES: Tight end Matt Spaeth, out since the weekend with a knee injury, practiced Wednesday, but was carted off the field midway through with an unspecified injury. … Coach Mike Tomlin said cornerback Curtis Brown’s ankle injury suffered Monday isn’t believed to be serious. … The Steelers practiced in pads Wednesday after an off day on Tuesday. Safety Troy Polamalu, running back Le’Veon Bell and linebackers Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds returned to practice after sitting out on Monday due to minor bumps and bruises. … The Steelers have one more practice open to the public today at Saint Vincent College before their first preseason game Saturday at home against the Giants.