Getting back in the game after a long layoff
Plaxico Burress took the first steps to resuming his NFL career Monday simply by stepping out of prison for the first time in nearly two years.
More than 30 months removed from his last reception, Burress is looking to pick up where he left off. In his last two full seasons, he averaged more than 1,000 yards receiving and scored 22 touchdowns.
Restarting his career, let alone playing at a high level, will be far from easy. Two months shy of 34, Burress is not only at a point when receivers’ careers generally spiral downward, but he is also facing the struggles that come with a two-year layoff in nearly any sport.
Coming back from a non-injury layoff is not a new problem. And the reasons for the absence are not always as unsavory. Hall of Fame baseball players missed time because of World War II and successfully returned to the diamond. Michael Jordan skipped most of two basketball seasons to play baseball and returned to win three more rings and two more most-valuable-player awards.
Muhammad Ali came back from a three-year exile after being convicted for draft evasion and eventually regained his spot at the top of the boxing world — but not before the previously unbeaten fighter lost two bouts in the next three years. Tiger Woods still hasn’t regained his form and has yet to win a major tournament since his return from an eight-month absence.
“The major concern is that although motor skills are very resistant to forgetting, the performance at such levels is a very, very fragile coordination between mind, body and emotion,” said Howard Zelaznik, a professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick may be the case most similar to Burress. Vick, like Burress, spent more than 20 months in prison and then returned to the NFL, where he led the Eagles to the playoffs in his second year back.
“It’s as surprising to me as it is to everybody else,” Vick said midway through his revival season. “But at the end of the day, I knew I had the talent and what it took to win football games. I just needed an opportunity.”
Nonetheless, contact sports such as football present the most difficulty in regaining previous form.
“You can lift weights, you can train aerobically, you can do all sorts of things,” said Robert Landel, a professor of clinical physical therapy at USC. “But short of having people tackle you, preparing for that is a different dimension.”
In boxing, Ali proves Landel’s point. Ali faced a ban from boxing for nearly three years because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Less than five months after Ali’s return, Joe Frazier handed him the first loss of his career. It is difficult to stage defending yourself against someone focused on your destruction.
In contrast, Landel sees baseball as one of the easier sports to return to after a layoff.
“The one thing you can’t do is stand in a batter’s box facing a Nolan Ryan fastball,” Landel said. “But you can take batting practice, field ground balls, run sprints. There is a lot you can simulate away from the game in baseball, or golf, or tennis, that you just can’t in a contact sport like football or basketball.”
Jordan’s return to basketball suggests otherwise. In the three full seasons after his return, Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won three NBA championships. Yet in his initial games back in the latter stages of the 1995 season, Jordan struggled.
“There was an adjustment for him, and an adjustment for the team,” said George Mumford, who was working as the Bulls’ team psychologist at the time. “Even though [Jordan’s] really good, when you stay away from the game that long, you aren’t going to have the efficiency or the effectiveness you had when you left.”
Jordan shot a career-low 41.1% from the field in the final 17 games of the 1995 season.
“He didn’t look like the old Michael Jordan,” Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson said after a second-round playoff game.
Baseball, the sport Jordan tried in lieu of basketball, has a long history of lost seasons. Hundreds of players missed time during World War II and the Korean War.
Hall of Famer Ted Williams missed the majority of five seasons thanks to the two wars but did not seem to miss a beat. When he returned at 34 after the Korean War, he hit .407 in 37 games with 13 home runs in 91 at-bats.
Willie Mays missed the 1953 season when he went on active military duty, but returned in 1954 to lead the New York Giants to a World Series victory. Mays was not alone in his ability to come back after military service. Others such as Bob Feller and Don Newcombe had similar success when they returned to the game.
Burress, though, is looking at an uphill climb thanks to his age. The last time a receiver 34 or older finished in the top 10 in receptions was 2007, when Derrick Mason finished fourth.
Woods returned to golf at 33, after an eight-month layoff due to knee surgery. Eight months later, he took his turn in the tabloids and has since played far below the level both he and his fans expect.
“Golf is a physically demanding sport,” Landel said. “Not in the sense of getting hit or aerobically, but your lumbar spine, your back, is not made to golf. … If you watch [Woods] golf, he has to spin on that [injured left knee], the front leg, a fair amount on his follow-through.”
In the end, the success — or lack thereof — of Burress’ return will probably come down to his own mind-set.
“You really can’t [generalize it],” Mumford said. “Everybody is different and responds to stressful situations differently.”
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