Brandon Magee was a spectator for a dodgeball tournament at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., when he realized Vontaze Burfict had rare athletic gifts.
“He already had a ball in one hand, and a guy threw another one at him and he caught it with the other hand,” said Magee, a senior linebacker at Arizona State and Burfict’s former ASU and Centennial teammate.
“He’s standing there, holding two balls, and another guy throws a ball at his legs, hard. He drops both balls, jumps in the air, gets his body flat and vertical, dodges the ball and then lands on his stomach.
“I have never seen something so crazy in my life. I was like, ‘Man, this guy is gonna get paid some day.'”
Last spring, that belief was in doubt. Following a mercurial career at ASU marked by senseless penalties, disciplinary problems, a well-publicized run-in with a teammate and some breathtaking plays, Burfict’s stock fell from certain first-round pick to undrafted free agent after a poor showing at the NFL Scouting Combine and a failed drug test.
“I just knew I was going to get my shot, and when I did, I had to take full control of it,” Burfict said. “I try not to remember all of what happened, but of course it got me motivated. Every time I go out on Sundays now, if I’m not motivated enough, I think, ‘This team didn’t want you in the draft,’ and I use that to get myself pumped up.”
Four games into his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals, that formula is working. Burfict is one of five finalists for Pepsi MAX NFL Rookie of the Week after leading the Bengals with eight tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and a pass breakup in Cincinnati’s 27-10 win over Jacksonville on Sunday. The performance came one week after a seven-tackle game against the Redskins.
With Thomas Howard on injured reserve, the Bengals have had to shuffle their linebacking corps, affording Burfict more chances on the field, particularly at weakside linebacker. But those opportunities never would have come had Burfict not first convinced coach Marvin Lewis that he was ready to leave all of his baggage at the airport when he arrived in Cincinnati.
“I don’t know the guy from Arizona State,” Lewis said. “I don’t need to know about anything in the past. Vontaze has done everything he needs to do to keep developing into a productive linebacker in the National Football League.”
The guy from Arizona State is still hard to gauge because Burfict rarely conducted media interviews during his Tempe tenure. He made a handful of truly memorable plays, like the now-legendary one from his freshman season when he timed the snap and leaped over the Georgia offensive line into Bulldogs fullback Fred Munzenmaier, or the ridiculously athletic interception of quarterback Matt Barkley in last season’s 43-22 win over USC.
But he also garnered more than his share of personal fouls, punched teammate Kevin Ozier in the locker room and was eventually benched by former coach Dennis Erickson late in a disheartening loss to Cal near the end of the 2011 season.
Everyone from fans to media to ASU’s coaches had an opinion about Burfict, but few got to see the full picture. And few made allowances for the immense obstacles Burfict faced in his past, from a dad who vanished while Burfict was very young to a mom who drifted in and out of life, forcing him to fend for himself on too many occasions.
“His idea of a normal family isn’t the normal family life most people experience,” Burfict’s football coach at Centennial, Matt Logan, said last season. “Imagine not knowing where your food is coming from or where you’re going to sleep each night.”
Burfict’s guidance counselor at Centennial, Anthony Cummings, believes Burfict’s main issue has been trusting others and knowing who is worthy of that trust because he had so few people he could rely on as a child. But his ASU teammates say that was never a problem with them.
“I didn’t really get to know ’Taze until he’d been around for about a year, because he kept inside his circle of Centennial people and the guys in his recruiting class,” said former ASU and current Cardinals linebacker Colin Parker. “But after I got to know him, it wasn’t evident to me that he never had trouble trusting me or anyone else on the field.”
What Burfict may have needed more than anything at ASU was structure.
“It’s hard for me to say. I’m not Vontaze,” Parker said. “But our coaching staff treated us more like adults than kids. It was a lot more like how it is at the pro level. I loved that, because I didn’t need a hands-on style. I could take care of my own business.
“But a lot of kids coming in have never had discipline in their lives. A lot of kids I played with come from single-parent homes and rough backgrounds, so it’s something they need.”
Before Burfict signed with the Bengals as a free agent, Lewis wanted to find out how much discipline Burfict still needed. So he flew to Phoenix and took his own wife and Burfict to lunch at P.F. Chang’s.
“There were a bunch of things going through my mind, because I knew this could be my coach,” Burfict said. “I was shy, so to go out and sit with him and his wife was really hard for me, kind of weird, but my main focus was to listen to what he said and to take notes.”
Aside from laying out the system the Bengals run and where Burfict might fit in that system, Lewis laid out his expectations for player conduct. After talking with Burfict, he left the Valley convinced that Burfict was ready to make the leap.
“When I got here, some of the leaders took me in and helped with my responsibilities, and having Marvin Lewis as coach, he’s been on me for the little things I need to do to be the player he knows I can be,” said Burfict, who credits Howard, Dan Skuta, Rey Maualuga, Taylor Mays and others with shepherding him through the rookie process.
“I’m surrounded by a bunch of great people, and everybody is pushing me to my limits.”
One quarter of one season isn’t proof that Burfict has finally mastered the mental side of the game to complement his immense physical gifts. Far from it. But imagine the possibilities for the Bengals if they can permanently instill first-round discipline in a guy who always had first-round talent. Imagine if his crazy collection of life experiences has finally led Burfict to a higher plane — the one Magee was always certain he would reach.
“He’s got excellent natural skills,” Lewis said. “He got the message before training camp that he needed to drop some weight, and he has been a pleasure to deal with — coaches, teammates and media.
“We always tell players, ‘It’s now how you got here, it’s how you perform once you are here.’ He’s a perfect example of that.”