Nine days before the NFL draft, Vontaze Burfict was in Las Vegas, hanging out with one of his boys from Tempe, Ariz. It was a one-day vacation for Burfict, who planned to play a little blackjack and roulette, walk the strip, and see a performance by Jabbawockeez, the hip-hop dance crew distinguished by its expressionless white masks.
There may be an analogy there. Burfict, the former Arizona State inside linebacker, might as well be wearing a mask as far as NFL scouts are concerned. For them, he has evolved into a real mystery.
Is he the strong, instinctive playmaker who last September was rated as one of the premier linebackers in the country? Or is he the guy who careened through a disappointing 2011 junior season marked by multiple flagrant fouls, and followed up with a disastrous performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February?
"You took a talented football player -- when he started college there, he was a highly recruited kid -- and he slowly regressed into this player that started to get cheap fouls and cheap penalties, and a player who had a horrible Combine workout," an AFC scouting coordinator said. "Not only the workout but the interview portion of the Combine. This is a guy who probably went from a second-round pick to no telling where he's going to fall."
The 6-foot-3 Burfict admitted he struggled to harness his anger on the field, where he had 16 personal foul penalties in his final 26 games for ASU. He also gained some weight last year, going from around 252 pounds to 259. As a result, he played heavier and slower. Although his total tackles dropped from 90 in 2010 to 69, he made seven tackles for losses and had five sacks.
At the Combine in Indianapolis, he bombed both in the drills on the field (he ran a tortoise-like high-4.9 in the 40) and during his interviews with teams. The whole process overwhelmed him.
"Man, I'm always nervous," Burfict said during a telephone conversation from his Vegas hotel room. "But at the Combine, it was a nervous like I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Especially looking up at all those coaches. For me to be in that spotlight, it was very nerve-racking."
The 21-year-old Burfict seems to have two personalities: He's aggressive and tenacious on the field -- sometimes too tenacious -- and shy and reserved off it. "I would totally agree," said Brandie LaBomme, who has been dating Burfict for two years. Sometimes when LaBomme watches Burfict buzz around on the football field, she can't believe it's the same guy she shares an apartment with in Tempe, along with their two dogs -- a Pomeranian named Puff and a Chihuahua named Chacho.
"At first, he did not like the dogs," LaBomme said. "Now, he loves them. The first thing he does when he comes home is go to the dogs and give them hugs and kisses. Then he'll say, 'Oh, hi, Babe.' "
Lisa Williams, Burfict's mom, will tell you that Vontaze has always been a shy guy. When he was a toddler and family or friends would visit and dote on him -- "Oh, Vontaze, look how much you have grown. Come over here and let me see you." -- he would hide behind his mother's legs.
Williams was in a gang with her boyfriend, Vontaze DeLeon Burfict in south L.A., when she was 22 and found out she was pregnant with Vontaze Jr., who was born on Sept. 24, 1990. Not long after that, the boyfriend was arrested and found guilty of possession of cocaine with intent to sell it. He has been incarcerated most of the time ever since, and Vontaze Jr. has never had a relationship with him.
Two of the people who have influenced Burfict most have been his uncle, Darryl Jones (Lisa's brother), and Vontaze's older half brother, DaShan Miller, 25. "Not having a dad growing up, I felt like my brother has been my brother and my dad," Burfict said. "And my uncle has helped me business-wise, life-wise because he's been around me since I was young."
Then there is Williams, who shook free of her gang affiliation, became a city transit bus driver for 15 years and raised DaShan and Vontaze as a single mom (she eventually remarried, and she and her husband have two daughters, seven and 13). Williams wanted a better life for DaShan and Vontaze -- "I didn't want to bury my kids, and I didn't want to visit them in jail," she said -- so she moved east out of urban L.A. After "pit stops" in West Covina and Azusa, they ended up settling in Corona, Calif., where DaShan became a star wide receiver at Centennial High, then went on to play college football at UTEP and Akron.
Vontaze worshipped DaShan and got introduced to football because of him. When he was an eighth grader, Vontaze worked as a water boy for Centennial's varsity team. He went to practices, traveled on the bus with the team to away games, and saw what playing football could lead to when DaShan received a college scholarship.
By the time Vontaze was a freshman, the Centennial coaches knew all about DaShan's younger brother. But Burfict's aptitude in the classroom didn't match his talent on the field, and sometimes he was academically ineligible. As a senior, his principals warned him that he was going to finish several credits short of graduating, but he made up the work and received his diploma with the rest of his class. He said graduating from high school was the biggest event of his life.
"High school was a hard four years for me," Burfict said. "For me to graduate on time was just a blessing because I wasn't the smartest guy in school. I wouldn't be who I am right now without a high school degree."
While Vontaze followed in DaShan's path -- he even wore the same jersey No. 7 as DaShan -- he and his half brother are opposite personalities.
"His brother had confidence," Williams said. "He was that dude that all the girls wanted. He was an athlete, too. Junior just kind of stood behind in his shadow. As he started to evolve himself, I was always there to encourage him. 'You can do it, you can do it.' He had to find that niche for himself, I think, and he's still searching for it."
On the plane ride home from the Combine, Burfict wallowed in regret about his experience in Indy and decided to make some changes. Instead of continuing to train in California, like he did before the Combine, he returned to Tempe and found a new trainer. He pretty much has been working out twice a day -- lifting weights, running and doing ab work -- and his weight has dropped below 250. He also has changed his eating habits.
Burfict has also been receiving some mentoring from Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Nick Barnett (the two share the same agent). At first, Burfict and Barnett talked on the phone and traded texts. Eventually, they met out in California for lunch.
"He's had some ups and downs, and knows how to take care of them because he's been in the league for multiple years," Burfict said. "So I felt like if I could contact him, he could let me know what the league is about." What did Burfict learn from talking to Barnett? "It's a business, it's teamwork, it's leadership. You have to be a role model for your community and teammates because it reflects on your coaches. It was especially good for me because a lot of people think I have a bad attitude because of the personal fouls on the field, or I ran a slow 40 at the Combine.
"I'm just real competitive, and I hate to lose. Because of the position I play ... you have to have some emotions running through your head. When I'm on the field, I play with anger and aggression; just want to hit somebody. Certain people think,
"I wish that all 32 teams could just chill with me for a day and see what kind of person I am off the field. I'm soft-spoken and shy. I'm a laid-back guy."
It's Burfict's disposition -- and production -- on the field that NFL teams are most concerned about. He's shown flashes that he can be an instinctive, smart, physical player. That combination of ingredients, plus his size, is what teams covet at inside linebacker.
"I still think he's a draftable player, probably mid-round," the scouting coordinator said. "To get somebody with some bulk and strength and size on the inside is rare. So somebody is going to take a shot at him and see if they can bring that back out of him."
Burfict is eager for some team to look under that mask. He thinks they'll be pleasantly surprised by what they find.
"Whoever picks me in the draft," he said, "is going to have a great middle linebacker."