This story appears in the April 30, 2012 NFL Draft issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
VONTAZE BURFICT SITS in a hotel lobby, unable to make eye contact with the man across from him. His hands sweat. His stomach twists so much it hurts. It's the middle of the combine in Indy, and when the annual scouting showcase began, Burfict was considered by many NFL execs to be the top linebacker prospect. "I'd watched the combine on TV," Burfict says. "It felt so important."
Scouts fell in love with him during his Arizona State career because he laid people out, because he played close to the line and occasionally stepped over it. Shielded by his Sun Devils helmet, he acted as though he had no fear of reprisal -- from opponents, from coaches, from refs, from fans. They don't know how nervous he was once the game ended. These coaches don't know, as they sit down to meet him, that Burfict had been shielded from reporters by Arizona State's PR team for three seasons. They don't know that before the combine, Burfict had done only a handful of interviews in his life. So his hands are sweating. And his stomach twists. And his eyes look down as he tells Bill Belichick, Yes, I can see myself playing in New England. Yes, I hope to have a great combine. Burfict didn't expect to run into the coach and have an impromptu interview in the lobby. And with Belichick straining to hear him above the din, he didn't expect to offer an answer most other hopefuls don't have to: No, I am not the dirty player people think I am.
The next day, Burfict moves on to another coach, and then another after that. He notices a pattern. No one wants to talk football. Instead, they all ask if he has anger problems, if he can adjust his temperament to the NFL. One coach wonders how Burfict would react if a sweeping offensive tackle were to hit him with a cheap shot: Would he pursue the ball or punch the lineman? God, they think I'm a monster, Burfict realizes.
It gets worse. Burfict finishes last among linebackers in the broad jump and second to last in the vertical jump. And then, in the most sacred test of all, he runs a 5.09 40, slowest for his position. Immediately he hears whispers from the sideline, sees heads shaking, feels the stares. Soon after the drills, he checks Twitter. Big mistake. "Things faster than Vontaze Burfict" is trending:
@theAdamGreen Vontaze Burfict posted a 5.1 on his 2nd 40-yard dash. Now we know the reason for all the late hits: He was just slow in getting there.
@RVAparks Who will go first in the draft? The broom from Stanford or Vontaze Burfict?
@JarrettGC Vontaze Burfict's draft chances are so slim, they just started dating Brad Pitt.
Before he leaves the combine, Burfict will be in a draft free fall, costing him millions. He feels as though he doesn't belong. I'm done, he thinks.
ONE PHOTOGRAPH HAS become symbolic of Burfict's play -- it is the first image that comes up when you Google his name, and it accompanies his Wikipedia entry. Last September, with USC visiting Tempe, Burfict crept toward the line of scrimmage in the game's opening drive. Stopping just short of USC center Khaled Holmes, Burfict pointed a black-gloved finger straight at Matt Barkley, the Trojans' quarterback. It's just you and me out here, Burfict's gesture said. And I'm coming for you.
In the week leading up to that game, Barkley had called Burfict dirty. He said the cheap shots had gone back to their prep days, when Barkley, a star QB at Mater Dei, lined up across from Burfict, an All-American at Centennial High in nearby Corona, Calif. Burfict was not pleased, and he made his presence known with five tackles in a 43-22 upset win. He also picked off his only pass of the season, in the second quarter, and returned the ball 36 yards. He was tackled at midfield by Barkley. Afterward Burfict walked over to the QB, helped him to his feet and patted him on the helmet. A Google search returns zero photos of that.
There is no question: Burfict has earned his rep. He loves to hit, loves to bulldoze through anyone who gets in his way. He had an astonishing 16 personal fouls in his last 26 games. "On the field, I become confident in everything I do," Burfict says. "I want to be that guy outside of football; I try to be, but in the back of my head, I hear no."
He has always been this way, living at the extremes, in the way a lot of football players say they do. But few have done it as extreme as Burfict. As a kid, Vontaze was chubby, which made him more reserved than even his natural disposition. He grew up in the shadows of his mom, Lisa, a gregarious city bus driver, and his half brother DaShan, four years his senior. DaShan was the athletic one, the good-looking one, the one Vontaze always measured himself against. "I've been shy since I was little," Burfict says. "I try to fight through it, but it's hard."
In their hometown of Corona, DaShan starred in high school, eventually playing wide receiver at UTEP and Akron. But Vontaze was too big to play with kids his age in local leagues. "I was 11 and they wanted to put me with 16-year-olds," Burfict says. Instead, he learned the game from DaShan and his uncle Darryl, Lisa's brother, on the front lawn of his grandma's house.
"We spent a lot of holidays on that grass playing football," Darryl says. "Ninety percent of the time, he would hurt somebody. He wasn't trying to, but he was aggressive. We'd tell him, 'You can't play that rough.' He'd get mad and pout a little, but he'd try to listen."
LISA LIKES TO say she's from the hood but her kids are from the suburbs. She grew up in South Central LA in the 1980s, when gang violence first drew national attention. And she and her boyfriend, Vontaze DeLeon (Lonnie) Burfict, were bona fide bangers. "Being his girl, I had to uphold an image," Lisa says. When she was 22, she found out that she and Burfict were going to have a baby. Vontaze Jr. was born on Sept. 24, 1990. A couple of months later, Lonnie, who had gone to Texas with some friends, was arrested and found guilty of possession of cocaine with intent to sell. He has been in and out of jail ever since and currently is serving a 25-year sentence for drug-related offenses. Vontaze Jr., who briefly saw his father when he was 15, says they have no relationship.
Lisa struggled to support two sons on her own. She leaned on friends but soon realized the only way to make her life better was to start over. She moved her family east, ultimately settling in Corona and moving in with her mom. But the suburbs didn't provide the shelter Lisa had hoped for. In Corona, with a population that's 44 percent Hispanic and 6 percent African-American, a Latino gang called the Vatos Locos terrorized black students. Burfict was a freshman at Centennial High when the gang chased down his teammate, Dominic Redd, stabbing him 13 times on his porch. "It could have been any one of us," Burfict says.
After Dominic died, Burfict's mother and his grandmother drove the boy to and from school. When he did walk, he kept his head down, sure not to make eye contact with anyone he encountered along the way. He became even more reserved. "He was this big freshman, but he didn't say a lot," says Shelly Lyons, a teammate who would become one of Burfict's best friends. "I moved to Corona right after Dominic's death, and the other players were angry. But it brought us all closer together and made us stronger. We look at each other as brothers."
Lyons, Burfict and their friend Brandon Magee made a pact: They would respond not with revenge but by succeeding, beginning with Friday nights. Burfict -- already six feet and 180 pounds as a freshman -- was no longer worried about lining up against older kids. He played with violence, earning comparisons to a young Ray Lewis. In his junior season, he led the team with 130 tackles, and as a senior he was first-team All-American.
The recruiting letters had started to pile up, first from Colorado and Minnesota, then UCLA, Arizona State and USC. Burfict had dreamed of playing close enough for his family to drive to games, and he liked USC's then-coach, Pete Carroll. And in 2009, the Trojans were about to lose four linebackers to the NFL draft. Burfict verbally committed to USC but then reconsidered after his official visit. "We came back from the Army All-American game, and five USC coaches were at school looking for him," remembers Matt Logan, Burfict's high school coach. "USC was high pressure. It was overwhelming, and it freaked him out."
Arizona State, on the other hand, played it cool. "They did their homework," Logan says. The Sun Devils sent fewer coaches to recruit. They knew that Burfict had struggled in school, so they introduced him to the academics coach on campus. And ASU had one more advantage: Magee and Lyons were already freshman linebackers there. "My brothers went here," Burfict says. "We could tell each other anything and it would stay between us, and they would teach me and show me the rules so I wouldn't go to college looking like a fool."
Burfict masked his self-doubt with a tenacity that immediately challenged his new teammates. His practice style was game speed, every play. "I loved how he practiced and played those first two years," says former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson, who was fired at the end of last season. ASU went 4-8 in Burfict's freshman year, but he started nine of 12 games and was second on the team with 69 tackles. He led the 6-6 Sun Devils the next season with 90 stops and was an All-American, but he burnished his bad-boy rep with 10 personal fouls in 12 games. "We had too much talent to be losing, and I couldn't control my frustration," Burfict says. He became the most feared defensive player in college football, in no small part for those flagrant penalties: 22 in 37 career games. He was in some sense still the boy who pouted and got angry in Grandma's yard.
That combustible reputation followed him off the field. "I would get tips all the time from anonymous emailers saying Burfict was in a bar fight or arrested for beating someone up," says Doug Haller, who covers ASU football for the Arizona Republic. "I checked out every one, and they were never true. He was never in any trouble." Truth is, Burfict spent most Friday and Saturday nights at home playing video games and his Sundays at church. "If he had talked to the media, they would have seen that he's funny and considerate and has a great laugh," says Corinne Corte, ASU's academics coach for football. "It was just too uncomfortable for him."
Before his junior year, Burfict and ASU set about repairing his image. The school sent a tape to the Pac-12, citing incidents in which they believed refs targeted Burfict unfairly. Erickson also asked his linebacker to tone down his play. Burfict had gained weight, going from 250 to 260 pounds, convinced the extra baggage would make his legal hits feel more lethal. Instead, "it slowed me down," Burfict says. "I was breathing heavy by the ninth play of the drive."
As his stats declined and the team struggled, Burfict fought to keep his emotions in check. "He wanted to do the right things," Erickson says. "But it took away from how he plays the game." He shut down to the point that he was barely communicating with coaches at all. Against Cal in the Sun Devils' regular-season finale, Burfict drew a personal foul in the third quarter, and coaches benched him for a series. But when they saw him sitting alone with a towel over his head, they thought he was sulking. His day was done. And so, effectively, was his ASU career. In Burfict's final game, the Maaco Bowl, Erickson pulled him from the starting lineup. "I was in tears," Burfict says. "I had the whole game to think about my future and things I needed to change." When he finally got on the field that day, refs flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct.
BY THE END of the combine, it's clear he still hasn't changed. The NFL knows it. The Twitter-verse knows it. Even worse, so does he. "I lost faith in myself," he says. For days afterward, he doesn't leave his apartment. Until Lisa calls and reminds him about his friend Dominic, about the pact he had made with Magee and Lyons, about how good he could be. "You can't quit now," she tells him.
Soon after, Burfict finds a new trainer and starts again. At his first pro day in mid-March, Burfict doesn't do well enough to erase his combine performance, but he still makes a positive impression: He grants interviews to every reporter who asks.
Afterward, back at his apartment, he opens his door and screeches in a high-pitched voice, "My babies!" He scoops into his arms a Pomeranian named Puff and a Chihuahua named Chacho. The most ferocious player in college football loves his two tiny lapdogs.
"Well, technically, they're hers," Burfict says, motioning to his girlfriend, Brandie LaBomme, a pretty brunette with a slight Texas accent. "But they're my babies," he coos. Along with the dogs, they own a cat named Cullen (yes, as in Edward). Burfict is responsible for the apartment's minimalist decor. He bakes too.
This is part of his makeover strategy, letting people see him when the helmet is off. That's why when not slimming down he is doing practice interviews with a trainer. Using flash cards, Burfict answers questions that might be asked of him again and again in the coming months: Are you a dirty player? A good teammate?
Two weeks after ASU's pro day, at the end of March, Burfict has one final workout in front of scouts. He weighs in at 245 pounds, a number he hasn't seen since his freshman season. He clocks a 4.8 40-yard dash, laughs with players on the sideline and mingles with coaches and scouts between drills. He looks at ease.
He sees Seahawks boss Pete Carroll, the college coach he nearly chose. They meet on the field, shake hands, talk football. "It was good to see him," Carroll says. "He looked leaner, ran faster and worked a lot harder coming into this workout than he did going into the combine. He's getting the message."
But now can he get the message out?