- Vontaze Burfict—student of the game? Doting dad and husband? The Bengals linebacker would like you to know he’s not the guy he’s made out to be. We embedded with Burfict for a busy midweek workday as he prepped for the Colts
CINCINNATI — Are you a dirty player?
Vontaze Burfict ponders the question. He’s sitting on a sofa near a picture window in his house in northern Kentucky.
“There’s a fine line in football,” he says. “And I think that I’m right at that line. Back in the day they’d probably say, ‘Vontaze Burfict, he’s a great linebacker.’ But rules change. Things change. The game changed. And I have to change with it. There’s multiple ways I’ve been changing with the game. There are plays where I’ve could have hit somebody and I’ve let off, because obviously you get a flag in this day and age. Marvin [Lewis] has been helping. Coach G [Paul Guenther] has been helping me. Change with the game. And I’ll still be that dominant linebacker."
Just days earlier it was unclear whether Burfict would even be available for this conversation. A video of him kicking at Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix was making the rounds, and there was talk of a third suspension for Burfict in two years. After the NFL announced there’d be only a fine ($12,154), Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell tweeted the Burfict-Nix video and said, “man dude gotta go man...that’s not football AT ALL!!”
“I don’t worry about it,” Burfict says. “People that are still talking after the game, and they won. Congratulations to them. Obviously, you must be scared of me. I think Le’Veon said something on Twitter still talking about the game. I don’t really pay attention to it. My brother had actually called me and told me, ‘Did you hear what Le’Veon said? And I’m like, ‘Nah, what’d he’d say?’ ‘He was saying something about you need to get out of the NFL. Or something like that.’ I said, ‘Man, I’m not worried about that.’ He’s just saying that, obviously, because he got hurt on two incidences of dealing with me. Both tackles were clean. One time he tried to still go for yards and the safety hit him and knees got tangled up. That’s football. He’s a great player, but I don’t listen to what other players say about me around the league. It doesn’t bother me. Because I know who I am.”
And that’s why we’re here. Burfict wants the world to also know who he is. Or, at least, his head coach does. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh he’s a dirty player. He does this. He does that,’” Burfict explains. “That’s all people just watching from the outside. I’ve been with Marvin six years now, and he’s seen who I am as a person. He’s seen me around my family. He knows I have a good, genuine heart. He just wants other people to see that rather than people always trying to bash me. I told him [the bashing] doesn’t bother me. Still, he was like, ‘Well I’m going to put a foot forward and try to help.’ And I’m happy to do it, too.”
The it is TheMMQB’s 24 Hours … series. We followed Burfict on Wednesday, Oct. 25, as he got ready to face the Colts.
There’s no way Vontaze Burfict didn’t just wake up his neighbors. His house is the one in the middle of a three-home cul-de-sac called—get this—Calm Stream Way. He backs out his modified 2017 Dodge Challenger Hellcat, 830 horses roaring to life. The two-door vehicle makes a tight fit for The MMQB’s three-man video crew. When told that, yes, everyone in the back has enough room (a lie, but a necessary one—there was never going to be enough room), he asks again, just to make sure.
With traffic, it’s a 40-minute drive to the Bengals facility. Burfict’s commute was five to 10 minutes when he lived near downtown, but when his girlfriend of eight years, Brandie, got pregnant with their first daughter, Aiyanna, to the suburbs they went. Their second daughter, Maliyah, is now almost six months old. With the longer commute, Burfict has been late for work only twice in three years—an imperfect, but acceptable, record.
Familiar with Burfict’s on-field work and having heard the Hellcat’s engine, a passenger is fully prepared for a white-knuckle ride. But he drives like a perfect gentleman, chatting amiably the whole way. For the next 30 minutes he talks about growing up a Broncos fan (he wore John Elway’s No. 7 in high school and at Arizona State), Cincinnati’s blitz packages (they can get extensive) and scouting quarterbacks’ cadences on TV (he cites a specific example where it paid off against Ben Roethlisberger last year).
Burfict overrides his better judgment and tells the story of how he and Brandie met. “Don’t tell her that [I’m telling you this] because she loves to hear this story. I never tell it. She gets in front of her mom and wants me to tell it, but nah, this story just for us.” But here it goes: Vontaze was a painfully shy sophomore at ASU. Brandie, a junior, worked the front desk at his apartment complex. When he finally mustered the nerve to approach her, the first words out of his mouth were, “You’re going to be my wife.” Brandie laughed (a little) and said she had a boyfriend.
After that, Vontaze would see her only in passing. Then, one day—and here’s where his version and hers start to differ—Vontaze was helping a friend move in, and the residents upstairs complained that their music was too loud. Brandie knocked on the door and told them to turn it down. Vontaze contended then—and still does—that she only knocked because she wanted to see him.
“Not true,” Brandie will rebut later, when Vontaze gets home. “I didn’t even know him.” Shortly after that, there was a Facebook friend request. Brandie doesn’t remember, but Vontaze claims she friended him.
“He posted something about game day, and I ‘liked’ it,” Brandie explains.
Vontaze laughs triumphantly. “You were stalking me!”
“No, who’s stalking who?” Brandie says, turning to the room for a jury. “Literally a couple of minutes after I liked his status, he sent me a message in my inbox.” The title: My Wife. Two months later they were living together.
Burfict attends to business at his locker. He has a weightlifting session at 8. First, though, he’s been summoned for a private meeting with Coach Lewis. They won’t share why, but both men emerge seemingly happy.
At his locker, Burfict tells anyone within earshot about the night before, when wide receiver Cody Core, playing Madden online against Burfict, had conveniently lost his internet connection after falling behind 13-0. Core comes over to share his side, and before long, both men are shouting over each other.
Bengals players have some options for when to lift. The group that, like Burfict, has chosen Wednesday at 8:00 a.m. includes A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and one of Burfict’s closest friends, Carlos Dunlap. They go through warmups and balance drills before lifting for 25 minutes. In the offseason Burfict will lift for two hours every day. He’ll be in better shape than he is now. But he won’t be in football shape, which, he stresses, is very different. During the season much of his body work is about maintenance. He has a stretching instructor, and he sees James Harrison’s famed acupuncturist every Friday. There’s also massage work, film study sessions in his home sauna, hot- and cold-tub sessions, and time spent in a hyperbaric chamber.
In between drills, Burfict recounts the Cody Core Madden story for Dunlap, in full, from the beginning.
Burfict picks up a pair of 80-pound dumbbells as if they were jugs of milk and does overhead presses, making SI’s sound guy gasp.
The 100-pound dumbbells are a little more challenging, but still achievable.
In the full team auditorium, Lewis gives all players the basics on the Colts, the upcoming opponent: record, offense and defense rankings, notable players, etc.—but not before first reminding everyone about the very basics. “The weather is changing,” Lewis says, the slide behind him saying “50 degrees and overcast” on the top line. “We need to change accordingly. I saw [linebacker] Nick Vigil in flip-flops”—Vigil is sitting next to Burfict in the center of the front row, five feet from Lewis—“It might be time to go to, uh, you know, shoes and socks. OK?” Also written on the slide is a reminder to wash your hands.
Lewis reveals the defense’s theme for today: “We have to know where Number 13 [T.Y. Hilton] is. He tells the story.”
Burfict takes the seat on the end of a middle row in the defensive meeting room. Coordinator Paul Guenther reveals Phase One of the game plan. Hilton is the backbone of Indy’s passing game, and the Bengals must play close attention to where he lines up. Burfict fills his notebook with red ink. In front of him is an iPad with drawings of the formations and coverages that Guenther is going over. Burfict, wearing Bengals athletic gear (like everyone), has changed out of the red Nike mesh shoes he arrived in. In fact, he’s not wearing any shoes, and he won’t for much of the day.
Burfict has written multiple pages of notes. The Colts like to throw backfield screens. Tight end Jack Doyle is the move-piece; much of Indy’s ground game dimension comes from him. Hilton is extra dangerous from the slot. For each item, Guenther spits out high-speed football jargon. To a guest, it’s Latin. To the Bengals, it’s shorthand.
“I’m surprised he didn’t wear a suit today,” says linebackers coach Jim Haslett, nodding towards Burfict and the film crew that followed him into Haslett’s office. All of the linebackers are in there going over what Guenther just presented. They elaborate on a bootleg play that the Colts like. The play flows to the defense’s right, but QB Jacoby Brissett goes left, looking for a tight end on a crossing route. Haslett explains that Burfict must flow with the initial movement and then reverse course and pick up the tight end when he comes across. Burfict chuckles. The task seems physically impossible. “Yep, it’s a tough one,” Haslett says.
“Ooh, he’s got a pretty quick release,” Burfict says, watching Brissett. Presumably, this is the first time Burfict has paid close attention to the 2017 Colts. On the drive in, he asked where Andrew Luck has been.
The full-team walkthrough is in 10 minutes. Burfict sits at his locker and plays a game on his phone. Then he gets entangled in a conversation with linebacker Jordan Evans, who claims he never believed in Santa. Burfict is baffled. What about the Tooth Fairy? Ha, of course not. And by the way, Evans has also never dressed up for Halloween. Nothing against it, he just never has. “Well, we all had childhoods,” linebacker Kevin Minter says. Minter is sidelined with a shoulder injury, which he’d treated with electrotherapy during the meeting, causing the shoulder to twitch in quite bemusing fashion. Burfict wants to know what Minter is even doing at work. He’s injured. Doesn’t he know he can go home?
The walkthrough is on the field in a windy, chilly Paul Brown Stadium. Burfict dials in but yawns intermittently.
Lunchtime. The Bengals have a full-service cafeteria, but Burfict has his personal chef deliver his meal. She does this for Vontaze and Brandie on most days, usually protein (salmon, chicken, bison, etc.) and veggies. Burfict retrieves the food from the security entrance and takes it into the cafeteria. The chefs in there notice but take nothing more than good-natured offense. Burfict joins a small group at a high table, where he sits across from right tackle Andre Smith and eats.
The Cincinnati media stands in the middle of the locker room, staring at Burfict. They badly want him to wander over and talk. Earlier in the day Ben Roethlisberger, in an interview on 93.7 FM The Fan, had been critical of Burfict’s pregame behavior at Pittsburgh. Burfict had refused to shake hands at the coin toss. It “was a huge shock,” Roethlisberger said. “Even if you absolutely hate your opponent, you’d think there’s a little bit of respect. You’re in the NFL together, you’re one of the elite few and you go out there and just stand back, your arms crossed, you’re talking nasty stuff at the coin toss with those kids out there and stuff. It’s, ehh, whatever, we won.”
The media wants Burfict’s response, but it won’t come. On our ride in he was asked if he’d heard what Roethlisberger said. He dismissed the question with a small wave. Now he strolls past the hungry reporters and into the training room without even a glance.
Burfict lowers himself into one of the Bengals’ three hot tubs. He’s the only one there. It’s hard not to notice that his clothes are still on. That’s just how he does it. His shoes are off, but aside from the drive in and walkthrough, they’ve been off all day. Today is a hot tub day only. Other days, including hours before a game, he’ll do both hot and cold tubs. He likes how light his legs feel afterward. The first time he did it was in college, before a Stanford game. He recorded 18 tackles, and so a pregame ritual was born. As he gets out, he holds a towel carefully under his phone. The next one that drops will be the seventh to be ruined.
Back in the linebackers room, Haslett fires up the film. Burfict, having changed into dry clothes, watches Colts running back Frank Gore break open a run. Lewis had stressed to the team earlier about how good Gore is at staying tight to his blocks. “Gore’s actually got some juice,” Burfict says to the room. “He’s old, but … ” Burfict lets Gore’s film say the rest.
Jogging out of the locker room toward the practice field, Burfict notices Dunlap at his locker, opening a container of protein powder. Burfict stops and takes a scoop, inserting it into his mouth right then and there. It was as bad an idea as it seemed. Panicked, Burfict sprints back to his locker to get water, Dunlap’s laughter trailing off behind him.
The linebackers go through drills and rehearse their zone coverage drops. In between, Burfict and Vigil discuss whether this is Week 7 or Week 8. After far too much deliberation, they determine (correctly, at least) that it’s Week 8. “Yeah, because we had a bye,” Vigil explains. “Uhhh … this crap’s almost over,” Burfict jokes.
“Split-belly, split-belly!” Burfict yells from his stack-linebacker position. He’s calling out the Colts’ favorite running play, which Cincinnati’s practice squad is lined up to run. Earlier, Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban had said, off to the side, “Tez’s football knowledge is unreal.”
Between plays, Burfict yawns.
And another – this one while he’s calling out the coverage to the rest of the defense.
1:48 p.m. (five seconds later)
The ball is snapped. Burfict instantly identifies the play and hunts up a deep “over” route (a Colts staple). He’ll be this sharp on all but two or three plays—not bad for the first practice of the week.
This time, he notices. “I’m freaking yawning too much,” he yells. Then, he looks over to one of the video crew. “Ya’ll woke me up too early! I’m freaking tired!”
At the end of each half-speed rep, an assistant who is serving as the scout team quarterback tosses the ball to Burfict. After his sixth or seventh catch, Burfict announces, “I’d be a badass tight end.” It’s self-deprecating, but with an on-the-bright-side-of-things tone, he adds, “I wouldn’t get fined.”
Burfict goes up to running back Jeremy Hill and tells him the Cody Core Madden story. Only this time he adds that they were playing for money. Core, Burfict says, owes him $1,000.
Core approaches the Burfict/Hill group and the Madden debate unfolds again, in full, as if for the first time.
More reps preparing for Indy’s zone runs and deep "over" routes.
“It’s crappy, bro,” Burfict says to a group of offensive players. “I had him down 13-0 and then the internet connection failed.”
Marvin Lewis walks among the mass of players and coaches back to the locker room following practice. On his way he sees a mouth guard on the ground, and makes what appears to be a painful decision to bend down and pick it up. “Mouth guard! Somebody dropped a mouth guard!” Lewis yells. He believes it to be rookie defensive end Carl Lawson’s, but no, the dapper Lawson explains, his doesn’t have painted gold teeth like this. Oh. Lewis hadn’t noticed the gold teeth. “Vontaze! Hey Vontaze! You left your mouth guard on the ground!”
In the last meeting of the day, secondary coach Kevin Coyle takes the linebackers and defensive backs through Indianapolis’s third-down tendencies. Several trends have been spotted, and Coyle, with an overhead projector and film, explains Cincy’s response for each. On the film, T.Y. Hilton snags a ball and explodes for 50 yards after the catch. Groans resonate throughout the room. “This guy’s dangerous,” Coyle says. Burfict takes more notes.
“Time to punch out,” Andy Dalton says, narrating his and Burfict’s exit from the locker room. The two men are walking to their cars. Dalton holds open the door for the video crew and, in a friendly tone that from anyone else would probably sound mocking, says, “Here you go, guys! Come on out!” Burfict scrolls through his phone as he saunters to his car.
The drive home begins with one more retelling of the Cody Core Madden story. To be fair, this time, Burfict was asked to tell it. Burfict sums it up by saying that he’s the best Madden player on the Bengals. In fact, it’s not even close. The distant second would probably be Joe Mixon.
Burfict talks in-depth about the Colts (mainly Hilton) and the state of strategies around the NFL. He reiterates almost everything from the defensive meetings, at times word for word. He also shows no afternoon fatigue and asks the crew how the day was for them.
Entering his house through the garage, Burfict walks through the kitchen to find Brandie in the living room. She is on the couch with Maliyah, watching a movie. Maliyah is wide-eyed, with a head of curly hair. Burfict’s house is 4,300 square feet and has high ceilings. The backyard slopes down into a thicket of trees, the leaves of which have turned yellow. Burfict falls back into the couch opposite Brandie’s, and the couple talks about their day.
A visitor can’t help but notice the house’s extensive Parisian décor. Brandie quickly explains that she loves Paris. And Vontaze hates it. The couple went in early 2013, right after Vontaze’s rookie season. “He said the food was no good,” Brandie says. Vontaze offers no refutation, not even when Brandie points out that he pretty much only ate McDonalds while over there. “Which, of course, is what he would have eaten at home,” she says. “Yeah, but over there the McDonalds tastes different,” Vontaze says. He prefers trips that offer lively activities. Places with theme parks, for example. Brandie explains that Vontaze is the type who will make you not just ride a rollercoaster you don’t want to ride, but ride it again and again, until you get sick. Which has happened to her—twice.
For dinner, Burfict stands in the kitchen and eats beef strips and green beans. His chef had dropped it off earlier. Most meals around the Burfict household are casual. He’s eager to wake Aiyanna, the two-and-half-year-old, from her nap. She’s at that age where her personality has started to really show, and mom and dad are eager to capture it on camera.
Burfict also would like to know why he yawned so much throughout practice. He’d mentioned to Brandie that he yawned twice. Told it was closer to quadruple that, he’s both shocked and fascinated. Why was he yawning so much??
Aiyanna is finally going full-bore following her nap. With the camera crew around, she had been showing her reserved side, which her parents rarely see. But now she’s cooking. Literally—sort of. She flips Play Doh in a toy frying pan and serves helpings to Daddy. Beaming, Vontaze watches her traverse the room, showing off all her toys and games. This afternoon Brandie took her to pick out a Halloween costume. She’s going as Disney princess Sofia the First, and, to prove it, she walks around the room, showing each person the packaged costume, one by one.
Burfict takes a seat in the formal room to have a formal conversation. It’s time to talk reputation and image. Marvin Lewis wants Burfict to show people the real him. The part of him that is “a hardworking guy, a family guy, a very smart linebacker who leads by example,” as Burfict describes it.
It’s here where the phrase “dirty player” comes out. Burfict utters it first. After he talks about Le’Veon Bell, Brandie is asked what it’s like to be so close to someone who is known, to many, as a villain.
“As far as what people say about him, it does bother me,” she says, taking a seat. “He’s like, ‘Don’t pay attention to it.’ It bothers me more when people get really evil. They say some really, really hurtful things. And I don’t think that’s necessary, whether you like a player or not.”
On the field, Brandie says, Vontaze “gets this energy about him that you don’t necessarily see at home. He’s very”— she pauses—“not to say that he’s antisocial.” Then she looks at Vontaze. “No, actually, you are antisocial. He’s very antisocial. And when you see him out there, he looks like he’s this very outgoing type of personality. He is like two different people.”
Before they put the girls to bed and hit the hay themselves, Vontaze gives a tour of the basement. Many of his toys are down there, and when he tries to say that it’s not necessarily a man cave, Brandie cuts him off. “It’s a man cave. Almost everything down there is painted black. It’s totally a man cave!”
Indeed, the carpet is black. There’s a red felt pool table in the middle. His PlayStation is in the back corner, beneath some Bob Marley posters. The walls are covered in jerseys from current and former teammates. Leaning against the base of the wall is a framed photo of the time Burfict, in an ASU-USC game, walked up to the line of scrimmage and pointed a threatening finger right at Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley. A high school rival of Burfict’s, Barkley had been saying things leading up to that game, and the Sun Devils linebacker wanted the QB to know he was ready. Burfict laughs recounting this. Asked if he still views Barkley as a rival, Burfict, striving for politeness, admits no. He’s moved well past that.
Bedtime is in 15 minutes. Burfict is a big sleeper. Today he’s skipped his usual late afternoon nap. Walking everyone to the door, he individually thanks each member of the crew and suggests we do this again in the offseason, when there’s more time for fun.
Postscript: Sunday would be a solid game for Burfict and Cincy's defense in a 24-23 win over the Colts. Burfict was assertive in run defense, as always, and he showed the same awareness in coverage (both downfield and underneath) that he did in practice.
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