Life on the edge

Vontaze Burfict's game might be too nasty for the new NFL. But he's not changing.

By Tyler Dunne

October 12, 2016

Bleacher Report

Joe Robbins / Getty Images

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.

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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.


John Grieshop / Getty Images

He cheated death at least four times.

Long before he was forearm-shivering ball-carriers, Burfict was living in his own version of Final Destination. He danced with death, and each dance shaped him into the person he is.

When Burfict was only four months old, Dad gave him Kool-Aid, and he contracted rotavirus, a disease that inflames an infant's stomach.

"I guess Kool-Aid wasn't good for a baby," he says.

He spent one-and-a-half months at the hospital.

When he was three years old, Burfict burnt his family's apartment to ashes. Mom was cooking chicken in the kitchen when her mischievous son found a lighter underneath a bed. It was the type of lighter that'd flame automatically when flipped open.

He opened it once. Opened it twice. And the mattress caught on fire.

When Mom told 'Tez it was time to eat, he responded, "Mom, it's hot in here!" She grabbed him, escaped through a cloud of smoke and soon the fire department arrived. Outside the building—all of their possessions inside destroyed—others asked, "Who did it? Who did it?"

Burfict's response? "The boogeyman."

Mom laughed. They moved on.

Lisa Williams still jokes to her son, "Don't light any lighters in this house!"

When he was 13 years old, Burfict could've died again. On a four-lane freeway, Williams was motoring along in the far right lane when an 18-wheeler appeared to be veering into her lane. A spooked Williams faded to the right, struck a curb, returned to her lane and touched the truck.

The next thing Burfict knew, the truck whiplashed their vehicle and they tumbled down a cliff.

The fall felt like a horrific roller coaster to Burfict. His seatbelt on, he stayed in place as the vehicle flipped "in circles" two stories downhill. When they finally landed, their doors wouldn't open. Burfict smashed a window to escape and then pulled his mother out. Both were sore for three days but, thanks to their seatbelts, suffered only scrapes and bruises.

Before the crash, Burfict reminded Williams (yet again) to buckle up.

He still does, too.

Then, through his teens, Burfict lived amid ruthless Hispanic gangs. There were no Bloods, no Crips in his Corona, California, neighborhood, but gangs still ran rampant. Racial tension burned deep. Corona's population was 44 percent Hispanic and only 6 percent African-American. The Latino gang Vatos Locos preyed on blacks in the area.

Burfict was only a freshman when his pal, Dominic Redd, was chased down and stabbed 13 times in the calf, legs, torso and chest by gang members.

"My friend was killed, but they knew not to mess with me."

— Vontaze Burfict

Redd was a budding star on the football field, too, a running back who seemed sure to one day earn a scholarship and play in the NFL and earn millions. Redd never saw color—his father taught him to treat everyone as equals.

To this day, Burfict visits Redd's grave.

He knows that could've been him. Redd was a target because of his skin color. But outside of a scuffle here and a tussle there, Burfict's life was never threatened. He projected an intimidating presence.

"My friend was killed," Burfict says, "but they knew not to mess with me."

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John Sommers / Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

If anyone wanted to try him, he was ready.

"I could fight. I was never scared of having to step outside or anything like that. I kept my ways, and they kept their ways."

Dad wasn't in his life. Serving a 25-year prison sentence for drug-related crimes, he was released about a year ago. Rather, Burfict looked up to his older brother, Dashan Miller, who'd go on to play wide receiver at Akron. That's where he believes his raw fearlessness comes from. Burfict points to the daily one-on-one battles with Miller in the backyard. He was the quintessential little bro trying to beat big bro just once at anything.

Maybe it's genetics. Mom grew up in South Central L.A. right when gang violence was peaking. Both she and Burfict's father were entangled in this world.

Either way, gangs didn't mess with Dashan. Gangs didn't mess with Vontaze.

And nobody messes with Burfict on a field.


Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

The Vontaze Burfict first impression is swift and devastating.

He sent a very loud message in his first game of high school and college football: Do not cross me.

"He has a shoot-to-kill mentality," says Matt Logan, his coach at Centennial High School. "There's no 'tackle.' It has to be a devastating tackle. He's going to hit you with as much force as he can. He's going to punish you for carrying the football against his team, for trying to beat him, for trying to get a yard."

So in high school, there was Burfict against Richard Sherman's Dominguez team. It was 4th-and-2, Logan recalls, at the Centennial 25-yard line. Burfict anticipated a run play perfectly and dove—"flew," Logan says—to smack a running back three yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Logan asked his defensive coordinator if that was the call. It was not.

How many players did Burfict injure in high school? Logan laughs an uncomfortable laugh.

"A good amount. He definitely left many battered and bruised."

At Arizona State, Burfict made the same statement. On the first play of his first game, he drilled Idaho State's quarterback for a loss. "An unbelievable play," his position coach Trent Bray recalls. He was intense. Passionate. A "presence" instantly.

Burfict warps the minds of offensive coordinators and the courage of players.

His "shoot-to-kill" mentality also keeps getting him in trouble.

In college, he head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz and blasted Stanford's Owen Marecic with a head-to-head collision worthy of a court appearance in some counties. In the pros, he has twisted the ankles of Panthers players, dived headfirst at Ben Roethlisberger's legs dangerously low, drilled Baltimore tight end Maxx Williams in the chin mid-route and, of course, dinged Antonio Brown with a head-to-head hit that triggered his three-game suspension.

Blistering backlash follows.

Matt Barkley never forgot that Burfict dove at his knees in high school, later telling the Los Angeles Times' Baxter Holmes in college that Burfict is a dirty player, adding that "his switch is always on, and it's not a good switch."

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Matt Barkley and Vontaze Burfict as opposing No. 7s in college (Norm Hall / Getty Images).

He racked up 22 personal fouls in 37 collegiate games. When Dennis Erickson finally benched Burfict for a series, Burfict refused to re-enter the game. It's no surprise Erickson doesn't return calls to discuss their toxic relationship.

"If he was playing checkers, he'd be the same way. If you made a move and he didn't like it, he'd probably smack your hand or come across the table to knock you down or something."

— Matt Logan, Vontaze Burfict's high school coach

There are players who are physical. Then, there are players who seek and destroy.

"If he was playing checkers, he'd be the same way," Logan says. "If you made a move and he didn't like it, he'd probably smack your hand or come across the table to knock you down or something. He's just the ultimate competitor."

A one-man wrecking crew in college—totaling 228 tackles (22.5 for loss) in three seasons—Burfict went undrafted. NFL scouts didn't see a player capable of adapting to the pro game. Athleticism, not ass-kicking, is the premium trait at linebacker today. This was a player meant to play in the '70s and '80s alongside names like Lambert and Butkus and Ham and Hendricks. Not in the 2000s. Not in a league trying to eliminate head-to-head collisions as much as possible.

"If he played 10 years earlier," Bray acknowledges, "his hits would be considered great plays."

Yet where NFL teams saw a dodo bird then, Bray saw a player who can toe the line.

"When he got those penalties for us, they weren't necessarily dirty plays," Bray says. "They were more just…he'd hit the guy too hard. They weren't intentional plays. They were more effort plays. He's just trying to fly around and hit you."

Granted, all perception is laced with inconvenient reality. Film does not lie. It's just that the film clips Bray points to don't generate 85,000-plus views on YouTube like the ones highlighting his dirty plays do.

Now coaching at Nebraska, Bray uses cut-ups of Burfict more than any other player in teaching linebackers how to get from Point A to Point B with no wasted motion. His instincts are off the charts.

This is the side of Burfict few see. The anticipatory side.

He's no unhinged maniac running around without a plan, as he might sometimes appear. There's always a plan. For example, before snaps against the Steelers, Burfict will locate Antonio Brown, to see if he is lined up near the running back. If he is, he plans on a pass. If not, he plans on a run. There's no way Pittsburgh would expose Brown to logjam traffic, he explains.

Everything he studied on film replays in his mind throughout the game: What they like out of this set. Where the feet of the linemen are pointing. The audibles the quarterback is calling out.

"I understand what they’re going to do," Burfict says, "and how they’ll attack us.”

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Joe Robbins / Getty Images

Playmaking is what stood out to veteran cornerback Nate Clements in Burfict's first year. Not violence. Burfict was in the right place at the right time.

So maybe this is his new "seatbelt," his way of surviving with a career so close to falling off the cliff. If Burfict thinks two, three, four moves ahead, he can avoid questionable collisions. He repeats he's not worried about flags—"at all." And really, that's the essence of Burfict. He genuinely didn't care what Barkley said in college or what any current player says in the pros.

He mutes out every comment and plays his way.

For better, for worse.

"He's going to stay who he is, and he's going to play the way he plays," Bray says. "He's still going to fly around, and whenever you do that, there's always a chance that things could happen.

"Whoever's coaching him now, I don't think they want to take that part away from him. That's for sure."


Joe Robbins / Getty Images

Vontaze Burfict cost the Bengals the 2015 season.

This is no exaggeration.

With 18 seconds left in the AFC Wild Card Game, the Bengals up by a point, Burfict swiped Brown in the head. The concussed receiver laid on the turf, and the incensed Burfict pleaded his case to the officials, to his head coach, to anyone who'd listen. Mayhem ensued. And the Steelers used 30 yards worth of penalties to kick a field goal and end Cincinnati's season.

Burfict was the goat, no different than Brandon Bostick…or Billy Cundiff…or Rahim Moore.

Yet eight months later, hell no, teammates don't want Burfict to change. This presence cannot—no, must not—ever be tamed. If a season is lost, so be it. They possess a weapon no other defense does.

"You can be his buddy off the field, but on the field?" safety George Iloka says. "If you have a different jersey, it's, 'F--k you.'

"It's a 'f--k me, f--k you' kind of attitude. You need that, because that's what it's all about. S--t, I always say, 'I'm happy he's on our team.' I wouldn't want to be going up against that every week. I'm glad he's on my side."

Burfict is the catalyst for change. His belligerent play is the solution, players believe, not the problem.

The last time Cincinnati won a playoff game, George H.W. Bush was in office, the USSR still existed and, oh, Burfict was three-and-a-half months old.

If the Bengals are ever to have the type of success Pittsburgh and Baltimore have had coming out of the AFC North, let alone win a title, they need sharks. Not guppies. To Iloka, the NFL is so woefully inconsistent with how it judges collisions on a week-to-week basis, Burfict shouldn't change a thing.

"[The way Burfict plays] gets contagious. Everybody loves that kind of player. You want that kind of player on your team."

— Bengals linebacker Karlos Dansby

"Listen, you've got to keep doing what you're doing," Iloka says. "Instill fear. Keep toeing that line and toe the right side of it. You don't want to be passive. You don't want to change your game and dudes start scoring and catching things all for the sake of 'Oh, they might start—' … Nah. Worry about that later."

Offensive players know if they drift into Burfict's periphery, he adds, they'll "suffer some consequences."

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Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick absolutely wants Burfict living on the edge.

"He better, he better," Kirkpatrick says. "That's what we expect. We don't expect him to change anything."

Added linebacker Karlos Dansby: "It gets contagious. Everybody loves that kind of player. You want that kind of player on your team."

But what if the NFL gives Burfict no choice but to change how he attacks offensive players? Iloka deadpans that players have only themselves to blame for giving Goodell the power to punish with little recourse. Goodell can fine, can suspend, can force Burfict to dull down his game. While that Steelers loss was no tipping point, no defining moment that changed his game forever, Burfict provides a haunting visual: He may start hitting low.

Don't let anybody across the middle. Hit the man in the shoulder pads.

In high school, Logan always taught Burfict to separate the man from the ball. Now, he believes the NFL is giving him no choice but to aim low, aim for the knees.

"Even though I think going low is a coward's way," Burfict says. "But without getting a flag, that's the good way to go about it. That's what the NFL is making it into. I'd rather hit a guy up high than mess a guy's knee up."

So ACLs, MCLs and CLs we've never heard of are officially on notice. Dansby has already seen a rise in torn knee ligaments. To him, tackling legally is next-to-impossible in certain bang-bang situations.

"It ain't going to be football after a while, man," Dansby says. "It's going to be something else, and I don't know what you're going to call it.

"You have to adapt or die."

For now, Burfict is cool. Burfict is calm. Not only are teammates giving him the green light to live on the edge—coaches are, too. Linebackers coach Jim Haslett notes the Bengals do tackling drills every day, be it player-to-player or with the ring-shaped Gilman tackling dummies. Proper technique is taught in the cozy confines of practice.

He also knows game day is different. More flags are inevitable with Burfict.

His message? Do not slow down.

"You don't want him to be passive," Haslett says. "It's hard to play in this game as a safety and a linebacker now because of the fines. You don't want to go low because you don't want to hurt anybody, and you don't want to go high because you don't want to get a penalty. All those things factor into your mind.

"He hasn't stopped. He hasn't changed."


Gary Landers / AP Photo

One aspect of Burfict's life, however, has changed.

The meanest SOB in the NFL isn't going to a gun range or tearing up the bars when the armor is off. No, he's playing with Barbie dolls. Really. Burfict is a father now, and as a father he's teaching his daughter how to do her hair and how to paint nails. He's going outside to jump on a trampoline or taking her to the park.

"I don't have a boy, so I have to do the girl stuff right now," Burfict says. "So it's cool when I go home that she obviously knows Daddy's home and it's fun time."

He has a girlfriend but (hint, hint) Burfict is planning on bigger things soon. The kid from Corona who stiff-armed gangs is learning how to be a man. He wakes up motivated for his daughter.

"I want her," he says, "to have the things I didn't have growing up."

To do that, of course, he'll need to stay in the league.

Weekly roulette has already begun. In the meaningless final moments of a 28-14 loss at Dallas, Burfict trucked quarterback Dak Prescott with a chilling left shoulder and then glared at the nearest official as if daring him to throw a flag. It was clean. No flag.

The goal is to play 10 seasons in the NFL. He's halfway there.

Vontaze Burfict, he hopes, can remain Vontaze Burfict these next five years.

"I say I'm not going to change my game," he says. "We'll see."

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Andy Lyons / Getty Images

One of Burfict's harshest public critics in the NFL provides a sign of hope. After Burfict went low on Roethlisberger last season, Roethlisberger's former backup Charlie Batch ripped the linebacker, tweeting, "How could this hit by Vontaze Burfict not be a penalty. Watch this cheap shot as he targets Ben's ankle," along with the damning video.

But looking back, Batch remembers the world crashing down on one of his fire-breathing teammates. And they'd stick up for their teammate just as the Bengals have with Burfict. In a span of five years, James Harrison racked up $150,000 in fines. Harrison, like Burfict, went undrafted. Harrison, like Burfict, shoots to kill. Harrison, like Burfict, was fined.

And fined. And fined.

Only, Harrison met with Goodell and did find a way to adapt. The 38-year-old is now 193 games and three Super Bowl appearances into a banner career.

This past February, Burfict finally met with Goodell himself.

"It's just a matter of figuring out what's allowed and what's not," Batch says. "If he doesn't know, he's going to have to find out. Any time you get suspended like he did, you know the league's looking at you. He's going to have to change the way he plays without losing that fire. Can he balance that? That question will play itself out."

Cincinnati is 2-3 with a trip to New England on deck.

Burfict will have chances to drill Tom Brady. And just like if it were a receiver coasting into his territory in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, when the time comes, Burfict will follow his own script.

Will live on the edge.

"We'll see," Burfict says. "We'll see."

Wish him luck.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.