Updated on June 6, 2011 at 12:22 p.m.

NEW YORK (AP) Former New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress was locked up for 20 months for illegally carrying and firing a gun at a Manhattan nightclub.

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As he left Oneida Correctional Facility in central New York Monday morning, he hugged agent Drew Rosenhaus and shook hands. He was wearing a black sweatshirt, shorts, sneakers and a Philadelphia Phillies hat.

“I just want to thank God for bringing me through one of the most trying times in my life,” he said to reporters outside the prison. “It’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful day to be reunited with my family. I want to go home and spend some quality time with them.”

“I’d like to thank everybody for their prayers and words of encouragement,” he said. “I’d like to thank all my fans all around the world for the thousands of letters, for their unwavering support. As far as football is concerned, if and when everything gets settled, when they get back on the field, I’ll be ready.”

He got into a black Range Rover and headed for the Rome, N.Y., airport where he was expected to fly home immediately.

His release came nearly two years after he arrived at the medium-security prison. Burress, who turns 34 in August, planned to travel to his Florida home to spend time with his wife, son and a daughter born while he was in jail. He’ll continue working out while awaiting a resolution of the NFL labor dispute, said his attorney, Peter M. Frankel.

Unlike Michael Vick, released in 2009 from a federal term for dogfighting, Burress doesn’t have a league waiting to bid on his services.

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 Michael 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.

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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.

“He’s learned an awful lot,” Rosenhaus said. “He knows that he obviously made a mistake. To miss two NFL seasons in the prime of your career. To not be with your family, most importantly. To lose out on millions and millions of dollars. These are things that have forced him to certainly evaluate his life.”

He said the teams he’s talked to have not expressed any concerns about Burress. He did not say which teams or how many he spoke to.

“He’s going to be a top free-agent,” Rosenhaus said. “There are going to be multiple teams interested in signing him. I expect him to get a good contract. I expect him to absolutely be playing.”

Held in protective custody because of his celebrity status, Burress didn’t have a cellmate but was able to socialize with others in his unit, including “Sopranos” actor Lillo Brancato Jr., who’s serving 10 years on an attempted burglary conviction.

Burress worked as a grounds maintenance laborer, completed an 100-hour anger management course and tutored other inmates in reading, writing and math. His wife, who’s a lawyer, visited frequently with his young children, Frankel said.

At Oneida Correctional Facility, he had some brushes with prison discipline, too.

At various points, prison officers said he lied to get to use the phone at a time when calls weren’t usually allowed, gave another inmate a pair of sneakers (considered an “unauthorized exchange”) and had three dozen cassette tapes and an extra, state-issued pillow in a “filthy” cell strewn with bags of food, dirty clothes, books and mail, prison records obtained by the AP show. The infractions – considered minor – cost him recreation, phone and other privileges at times, and he was told to clean up his room.

Vick said in a radio interview with WIP in Philadelphia that Burress would be a great fit with the Eagles.

“I think certainly Plaxico is going to come out with a chip on his shoulder the same way I did, and he’ll go out and help this football team to whatever capacity he can,” Vick said. “I think the guys would be willing to embrace him and bring him in. If that happens? Who knows? We talking about “what ifs” now? It would certainly be a good thing.”

Canavan reported from East Rutherford, N.J. AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit, Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia, John Kekis in Syracuse and Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.

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