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CINCINNATI — The path to NFL redemption is simple. Just follow the script.
Stand at your locker in a state of shame. Apologize. Plead for forgiveness. Thank the almighty Roger Goodell for granting you a second chance. Promise to change your ways. Then, yes, change.
Skip any of these steps, and the NFL may eject you forever.
Vontaze Burfict knows this as he lifts his shoulder pads off—his torso a canvas of tattoos, his eyes heavy—and takes a seat on the stool at his locker after Bengals practice. Add it all up and he has lost about $700,000 to what the league has deemed dirty hits. The six fines he's amassed over the past three seasons and the three-game suspension to start this 2016 season have officially threatened his livelihood.
But he won't follow a ridiculous script.
From the corner of his eye, the Bengals linebacker notices team owner Mike Brown enter the locker room.
"Mr. Brown," he says, outstretching his hand, "What's up?"
Brown has his back publicly. Teammates and coaches have his back. No, Burfict will not change who he is. He sits back down and doesn't flinch.
"I can't let it get to me," he says, "because if I let it get to me, I'm not playing my game."
Several times, Burfict repeats he'll play his way. With violence. Because that's the reason the 6'1", 255-pound linebacker made it to the NFL in the first place. The opposition fears him. Dare to enter his domain and you'll be punished—he plants the field with landmines. The ankle twisting, headbutts and other cheap tricks must cease, but Burfict will always, always, seek the game-changing collision.
The hit that hurts.
Burfict will live on the edge.
Gary Landers / AP Photo
"I'm not worried about it," he says. "It's not getting into my head or nothing like that. It's totally different from Odell's case and what he said. … He's the one who likes to be noticed and seen big-time. I'm not that guy. I'm not that guy who's going to dance after one-hand catches."
True. In New York, a star player whacks a kicker net and the kicker net whacks him back. Odell Beckham Jr. pouts that football (sniff, sniff) isn't fun anymore. He is, literally, crying on the sideline. And in Cincy, the land of overrated chili and a football team that hasn't won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991, a star player doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks. You. Me. Other players. The commish. Anyone.
Ask Burfict what people should know about him and he sneers.
"I don't really care what people know and don't know. I don't care."
"If he played 10 years earlier, his hits would be considered great plays."
— Trent Bray, Vontaze Burfict's college position coach
No identity crisis here. He totally ignores a follow-up question, bursting into laughter at a teammate staring his direction about 20 feet away.
"You're stupid, bro!" he yells with a laugh.
Vontaze Burfict is back, living on the edge, on a field near you.
If you have a problem with it, that's your problem.